Visitors seek health in Dead Sea salt, sun

The Dead Sea has been around for a long time, but it is only in recent years that the region has become an important, internationally recognized center for the treatment of certain skin diseases, as well as a major tourist center in its own right.

Halfway along the length of the Dead Sea is Israel’s second most popular tourist attraction (after the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem): Masada. In 35 BCE King Herod transformed the mountaintop of Masada into a three-tiered winter home. In 73 CE the fortress was the place where 960 Jewish zealots — men, women and children — took their own lives rather than surrender to the Romans who had put the fortress under siege, according to the historian Josephus.

Today the Dead Sea is much smaller than the sea King Herod would have known. The past 50 years alone has seen a dramatic reduction in its size because the sources of its natural replenishment, such as the River Jordan, are being diverted for agriculture and for use as fresh water. Fifty years ago, the Dead Sea stood at 1,294 feet below sea level; today it is 1,386 feet below sea level. To many this is seen as an ecological disaster in the making, because at this rate of depletion the sea will really be dead in 300 to 400 years. The need for fresh water is, of course, paramount, but serious consideration is being given to the possibility of replenishing the Dead Sea from the Red Sea by means of a canal.

A few miles south of Masada it is theoretically possible to walk on dry land between Israel and Jordan in an area where the sea has dried up completely. To the south of this point, known as HaLashon (the tongue), the Dead Sea exists almost entirely because the area has been dammed, allowing the Dead Sea Works, one of Israel’s biggest export earners, to extract valuable chemicals. This dammed southern section also encloses the remarkable and unique holiday and health resort of Ein Bokek.

It used to be that tourists coming to the Dead Sea area to visit Masada, Qumran and Ein Gedi did not actually stay in the area, but rather came on day tours from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nowadays Ein Bokek, Neve Zohar and Ein Gedi have more than 4,000 rooms, distributed in 15 high-quality hotels, including the Hyatt and Sheraton, five kibbutz hotels and guest houses, and four hostels.

Among the visitors are those who are looking for relief or even a cure for several kinds of skin conditions. Ten percent of all visitors to the Dead Sea fall into this category and of that group by far the largest number are suffering from psoriasis, a genetically driven chronic skin condition.

Clinical experience has shown that sufferers from psoriasis, as well as such skin conditions such as vitiligo and atopic dermatitis, benefit considerably from exposure to the special climatic conditions of the Dead Sea.

In fact, the International Dermatology Congress met in the fall at the Dead Sea for the first time. Experts from 22 countries heard lectures, presented papers and exchanged ideas on the latest scientific research on skin diseases.

“The secret is in the sunlight at the Dead Sea,” said dermatologist Dr. David Abels, head of the Dead Sea Research Center.

“It is true that we are told to avoid exposure to the sun’s rays, as this has been shown to be a cause of skin cancer. However the sun in the Dead Sea Valley is less harmful than in any other place in the world with regard to ultraviolet radiation.

“[Because] the sun’s rays have to travel another 420 meters [1,386 feet] through the atmosphere, plus the unique filtering effect of the mist over the area caused by evaporation and a thick ozone layer, much of the more harmful UV-A radiation is absorbed. All this means that there is little or no sunburn during extended periods of exposure. Also there is 8 percent more oxygen than anywhere else on earth due to the high barometric pressure, making breathing much easier.”

Israel in the Ballpark