12/15/2010 01:39

Hoteliers, green groups say public will stay away if solution to salt buildup means massive reconstruction.

Ahead of an expected decision by Tourism Minister Stas Mezesnikov regarding the fate of hotels at the southern end of the Dead Sea – where the water level is rising due to a buildup of salt – two environmental groups and the Israel Hotels Association on Tuesday came out in favor of dredging the salt rather than relocating the hotels. They also released a survey showing that the public believes that any solution should take environmental considerations into account, and that extensive construction would likely reduce tourism by half.

Mezesnikov said Tuesday that he would likely make a decision in two or three weeks, but declined to say which option he preferred.

In a bit of irony, while the shoreline of the Dead Sea’s northern basin is receding by a meter a year, the water level in the southern basin, especially in an area known as Pool No. 5, is actually rising. This is because it has largely become a series of artificial pools whose main purpose is to harvest the sea’s minerals through evaporation, in which residual salt is allowed to sink to the bottom. This raises the sea floor, causing the water level to rise by about 20 cm. a year. It is estimated that in another seven years it will likely flood the foundations of shoreline hotels.

Meseznikov will have to decide among three options for solving the problem. The first would be to dredge the salt, allowing the water level to drop. This option has an estimated price tag of NIS 7 billion, according to the government.

The second option would involve tearing down some hotels and relocating them farther back from shore, something that would cost about NIS 3-5b., according to Treasury estimates. However, Israel Hotels Association president Eli Gonen said Tuesday that this calculation did not take into account losses to the local tourism industry, which would double the estimate to NIS 6b. or more.

The third option would be to build a lagoon around the hotels and dredge the salt from that area alone, which would cost an estimated NIS 5b.

On Monday, Treasury budget branch head Udi Nissan told The Marker that the best option would be to rebuild the hotels. But at a Tuesday press conference in Tel Aviv, the Hotels Association, together with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, announced the results of a new opinion poll that showed that if the southern part of the Dead Sea were to become a giant construction zone, only half of the 61 percent of those polled who said they were interested in vacationing there would actually do so.

The survey, conducted by Geocartography, also found that 84% of the respondents believed environmental considerations should be taken into account when solving the salt problem.

Tamar Regional Council head Dov Litvinoff is also in favor of dredging, telling The Marker on Tuesday that it made no sense to destroy the infrastructure of an international tourist site.

According to the survey, more than a third of the respondents identified the Dead Sea with tranquility and health, while only 12% identified it primarily as a source of minerals. Twenty percent perceived it to be a tourist site, and 15% noted its natural and unique beauty.

“SPNI believes that the only way to strike a long-term balance between industry, the hotels and the environment in the southern Dead Sea basin is to dredge the salt,” said Nir Papai, head of the SPNI’s nature and environmental conservation branch. “This option is far more preferable environmentally and should be promoted. It is also the option most supported by environmental groups, the hotels, the Tamar Regional Council and the region’s residents.”

Echoing Papai’s concerns was Naama Heler, head of the IUED’s legal department.

“We object to the assumption that the Dead Sea Works production processes are immune from environmental assessment,” Heler said, speaking of the government company that harvests the minerals. “The plan to solve the Pool No. 5 issues should assess ways to reduce the pool’s influence on the drop in the water level of the northern basin. The plan must also follow the dictates of National Master Plan 13, and in particular protect the Tze’elim Stream.”

Hotels Association head Gonen added that Finance Ministry and Tourism Ministry officials were aware that there was no choice but to dredge.

“The only question is when – today or in 2030, when a new license will be granted to the Dead Sea Works,” he declared. “The Dead Sea is competing for the title of one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The option of relocating the hotels – which would effectively destroy the area’s tourism potential – is foolish and in direct contradiction to branding the site as a natural wonder of the world.”

Gonen demanded that the officials “stop throwing salt in the public’s eyes” regarding hotel relocation.

“The real cost is over NIS 6b. for direct damage and indirect damage to the tourism industry, which is double the number the government has cited,” he said. “Apparently, discussions by professionals are based on incorrect estimates. The timetable is not realistic for rebuilding the hotels, and the cost of firing 4,000 hotel employees at the Dead Sea if the area becomes a giant construction site has not been taken into account.”

The telephone survey was carried out during the second week of December among a representative sample of 500 Jewish Israelis over the age of 18. The margin of error was 4.4%, with a statistical significance of 95%.

Ron Friedman contributed to this report.