05/24/2011 01:57

NIS 750 million plan calls for increasing tourism, harvesting salt; MK Henin praises move, says Dead Sea Works should shoulder costs.

The Tourism and Environmental Protection Ministries announced on Monday that they will recommend salt harvesting as the solution to the rising water levels in the southern Dead Sea hotel zone.

They are also touting an additional NIS 1 billion plan to improve tourism infrastructure and attractions in the area.

Experts: Dredge all salt from Dead Sea southern basin
Cabinet approves NIS 8.75m. for Dead Sea PR campaign

Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov (Yisrael Beitenu) called the Dead Sea “unique and unlike anywhere else on Earth,” at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Monday, adding that “it has been neglected and subject to shameless treatment by the state for decades. It is today at its lowest point ever despite the potential it has. There are no entrepreneurs, no new hotels, no attractions, and the public infrastructure is neglected.”

Meseznikov said that only serious investment will bring the area to where it needs to be, and noted that he and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) would call on the Finance Ministry to acquire the NIS 5-7b. required for the salt harvest directly from the Dead Sea Works company.

In addition, they will urge the ministry to open a fiveyear, NIS 1 billion fund to improve the Dead Sea tourism infrastructure, which would come entirely from the Dead Sea Works company and the hotels. Of the total, the ministers said that NIS 250m. of it would come from raising the royalties on Dead Sea Works.

Dredging all of the 20m. tons of salt that accumulate in the southern portion of the Dead Sea annually for the next 20 years will require about NIS 6.5b., according to a study released last week commissioned by the tourism ministry’s Dead Sea Preservation Government Company.

The current plan adopted by the tourism and environmental ministers “will combine rehabilitation and development of the area and will be brought forward for government approval three weeks from today,” Meseznikov said.

Meseznikov said that he sees the Dead Sea Works as a significant contributor of employment to Israelis in the Dead Sea region, and expressed his confidence that they would shoulder a large portion of the burden of the Dead Sea development initiatives.

The head of the Dead Sea Hotels Association, Nechemia Ben-Porat, called Monday “a national holiday for the hotels of the Dead Sea. After years of management based on uncertainty and under the cloud of existential threat on the Dead Sea hotels – today we can smile and breathe deeply.”

Environmental activists and researchers unanimously applauded Meseznikov’s decision to promote the harvesting of Dead Sea salt.

“No less important than the decision to pick the environmentally correct alternative is the apparent determination of the minister to see that the ‘polluter pays’ for this new expensive infrastructure and not the Israeli tax payer,” Prof. Alon Tal, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, told The Jerusalem Post.

Tal chaired the committee that drafted the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company’s report, and had originally recommended that Meseznikov support the salt harvest.

“We praise Tourism Minister Meseznikov, who made a courageous, just and very environmental decision, and chose the option that will provide the Dead Sea area with the only long-range solution, which will bring an optimal balance between the three dominant elements – environment, tourism and industry – in the southern basin, and will reduce the damage to valuable nature and scenery and will achieve stability in the long-term,” Nir Papay said, vice president of environmental and nature preservation of the Society for the Protection of Nature, in a statement. “The Dead Sea Works must take responsibility for the financial matters of the chosen solution.”

Amit Bracha, executive director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V’din) also welcomed Meseznikov’s decision to adopt this route, and meanwhile urged the finance minister and the government to adopt the ideas set forth by the tourism and environmental protection ministers as soon as possible.

But before establishing a fund to further develop the area’s tourist attractions, Bracha stressed that it is necessary to first use allocated money toward the environmental rehabilitation, as a result of damages caused by the industrial operations of the Dead Sea Works plants. He also asked that the government immediately check that the plants have paid fully for the use of this public natural resource.

Friends of the Earth Middle East also praised Meseznikov’s announcement, reminding the Dead Sea Works company that it must bear the brunt of the fiscal responsibility regarding the improvements.

“We congratulate the tourism minister and the environmental protection minister on the choice to use salt harvesting to solve the problem of the rising water level in the hotels area, with the factories bearing the costs,” said the organization’s director, Gideon Bromberg, in a statement.

“This is the correct and fair solution, the only viable option that is also in line with the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Now, the Dead Sea Works must recognize their responsibility for the environmental damages and bear the financial cost of repairing them.”

Dead Sea Works should also adopt Environmental Protection Minister Erdan’s “call to invest in technological solutions,” such as membranes over evaporative pools to extract minerals, Bromberg said.

In addition to the environmental groups, the Knesset members who have also been pushing for the choice of salt harvesting were pleased with Meseznikov’s decision.

“Dead Sea Works makes enormous profits on its intensive exploitation of the Dead Sea and the public gets only small crumbs,” said MK Dov Henin (Hadash), chairman of the Knesset’s Health and Environment Committee, in a statement on Monday morning.

“The imposition of the costs of the treatment of the environmental effects of the plant operations must fall entirely on the plants themselves by virtue of the ‘polluter pays’ principle.”

Finance Committee Chairman Ofir Akunis (Likud), who was instrumental in first raising the subject of southern Dead Sea flooding during a meeting of his committee in September, said that Meseznikov’s recommendation is “the most logical option, the most tourist and economically friendly,” and is “the best solution” for the environment.