Tourists pump life, and money, into Dead Sea region

The region enjoys a rare combination of exotic desert beauty, historic sites and unique health-giving climatic properties.

The region's planners have taken these gifts from nature, plus the fact that the Dead Sea is only an hour's drive from Jerusalem and two from Tel Aviv, and turned them into the basis for a thriving tourism industry.

In 1996, 1.4 million tourists, 52 percent of them Israelis and 48 percent foreigners, visited the region. Some 75 percent of all foreign tourists who come to Israel visit the Dead Sea, and predictions are that by the year 2000, there will be a 30 to 40 percent increase in the number of "bed nights" spent at the Dead Sea.

"In 1962, we had one hotel with 24 rooms," says Yuval Shahaf, managing director of the Dead Sea Regional Council. "In 1972, there were two hotels with 280 rooms. At present there are 3,000 rooms, but with seven more hotels planned in the area, there will be some 5,000 hotel rooms, together with Jordan, by the year 2000. Ninety percent of these will be on the Israeli side."

Most of the hotel rooms are superior first-class or deluxe — like the Radisson Moriah, Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, and Hyatt international hotel chains — Shahaf notes. But there are also tourist-class rooms, youth hostels, kibbutz guest houses and camping sites. "We have facilities for every budget," Shahaf says.

"Tourism is very important to us. It is a form of Zionism, a way of developing the northeastern Negev by providing employment and economic advancement to this outlying region."

Accompanying the boom in hotel construction is a corresponding boom in the development of new infrastructure, sites and activities.

Physically, the grandeur of the Dead Sea region has not changed significantly since the day some 4,000 years ago when Lot's wife took a backward glance towards Sodom and Gomorra, and turned into a pillar of salt.

Surrounded by craggy desert landscape, for most of its history the Dead Sea area was inaccessible. Because of this, it served as a place of refuge and a spiritual retreat for the persecuted, dissidents, rebels and recluses.

At Masada, the region's most visited site, Jewish insurgents made their heroic stand against Rome. At Qumran, the Essenes lived in strict religious discipline, leaving behind the Dead Sea Scrolls. At Ein Gedi, David found a haven from King Saul's wrath. And at the point where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, John baptized Jesus.

This historic inaccessibility has preserved the area's natural beauty. Visitors can explore magnificent nature preserves and enjoy adventure-filled outings such as challenging desert tours, rappelling and rock climbing, camel riding and desert safaris.

For those interested in something more relaxing, a Dead Sea cruise boat recently began plying the waters. Called Lot's Wife, the double-decker wooden boat seats up to 110 passengers and features an on-board restaurant and bar. The boat sails the Dead Sea between the Moab Mountains to the east and the rugged cliffs of the Judean desert to the west. In addition to regularly scheduled sailings, it can be booked for special cruises or private parties.

The Dead Sea derives its name from the fact that virtually nothing can live in its waters due to its 30 percent concentration of salt and minerals. These properties give the waters their world-renowned buoyancy, enabling even non-swimmers to float with ease. In addition, a number of mineral-rich hot springs flow into the Dead Sea, as well as freshwater springs and runoffs which deposit the famous black mud along its shores.

Year-round sunshine and a desert environment contribute to rapid water evaporation, creating a high concentration of oxygen and bromine in the air. The vapor layer created by this evaporation, together with the region's low altitude, naturally filter out most of the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays, permitting longer exposure to the sun's rays without burning.

All these factors make the Dead Sea region ideal for the treatment of various skin disorders (notably psoriasis and atopic dermatitis), joint ailments (arthritis and rheumatism), sports injuries and respiratory diseases.

Over the past two decades, the advantages of Dead Sea natural treatments have been better documented by the medical community. This has given rise to medical tourism, with health insurance funds in Germany, Austria, Denmark and parts of Italy paving the way in covering treatment for their members at the Dead Sea.

"This is treatment which the patient enjoys — sunbathing, hot springs, mud packs, sea water," Shahaf notes. "And not only is it cheaper than hospitalization or even ambulatory treatment, it is also more effective, with little or no harmful side effects."

The recently-opened Minus 400, a $5.5 million solarium for climatic treatment of skin and joint diseases, is the present focus of the region's medical tourism. It is designed to facilitate absorption of the sun's rays in the best possible way for treatment. Minus 400 includes three clinics for supervised treatment, well-ventilated outdoor sunbathing areas, a private beach, a fitness room, a game area and a number of shops.

But the Dead Sea also draws plenty of healthy visitors, who "come here to pamper themselves in unique surroundings and deluxe facilities," Shahaf says.

The various hotels now offer every possible combination of treatments designed to provide smoother, healthier skin, relieve muscle tension and promote a feeling of physical well-being. This includes indoor-outdoor seawater pools, mud facials, thermal mineral baths, whirlpools and massages.

Shahaf is upbeat about the region's prospects. "We are organizing a Dead Sea Medical Research Center in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Zionist Organization and the Ministry of Tourism to explore the area's health potential with respect to respiratory and cardiac conditions.

"We are developing a new marketing strategy for further penetration into the European market and to enter the North American and Japanese markets. We are also developing a campaign to publicize the region's uniqueness.

"And of course, we see great potential in future cooperation with Jordan — in joint research, joint marketing, a common airport and additional land connections. There are no shortage of options for the Dead Sea."