Zafrir Rinat | Nov. 8, 2018 | 3:24 AM

The Tourism Ministry is said to be checking an alternative to the construction of a hotel in the Sasgon Valley in the south, which has been the subject of public controversy for years. In two weeks the ministry and the Hevel Eilot Regional Council are to release a plan for tourism development in the region that will apparently include a proposal to build the hotel near the southern entrance to Timna Park, rather than in the Sasgon Valley.

The alternative plan has the support of Adam Teva V’Din – the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and of area residents.

The controversy began 11 years ago when residents of the Eilot region north of Eilat learned of a plan to build a hotel compound that they argued would seriously mar the unique landscape of the Sasgon Valley. The residents’ objections spurred a struggle led by environmental groups that included legal action.

At the end of the legal battle, the Sasgon Valley plan was sent back to the Southern District Planning and Building Commission, which approved more limited construction. As a result, a new plan for the hotel was submitted to the committee by the Dead Sea Preservation Company, a government company that operates under Tourism Ministry auspices. This is not the plan of the developer who is supposed to build the hotel, but a plan that determines where the developer can build.

At the same time, otheroptions for hotel development in the area were broached. Last month, the planning commission held a hearing attended by representatives of the Dead Sea Preservation Company, at which the Timna Park alternative was raised. Some committee members made it clear that they would not agree to advance this alternative unless the Sasgon Valley plan was canceled, and in the end the panel decided that the alternative would only be advanced if the Sasgon plan was withdrawn. The Tourism Ministry was asked to have the Dead Sea Preservation Company examine the new proposal.

“We hope that the new plan will finally allow the hotel planned for the Sasgon Valley to be moved to a place that protects the pristine landscape of the northern Timna area,” said Yaniv Golan, a resident of the area and a leader of the battle against the Sasgon Valley plan. “We will not support the approval of another hotel in the Timna Valley until the Sasgon Valley is declared a nature reserve.”

“With the presentation of the new plan, after more than a decade of struggle, we can say with certainty that only through dialogue can we properly integrate the advancement of tourism and preservation of the rare natural lands that still remain in Israel,” said Amit Bracha, director of Adam Teva V’Din.

Yoav Igra, owner of the Igra Company, which is supposed to be developing the Sasgon Valley hotel, said he had no knowledge of any other government plan and that his company is continuing to work on the original plan.

The Tourism Ministry said in response: “The desert product is a brand that’s a focal point of ministry policy and following extensive marketing activities by the ministry, we are witnessing a dramatic increase in the number of incoming international flights and occupancy rates that are higher than ever. The ministry is working to increase and diversify lodging solutions in Israel in general, and in the south in particular, to meet the growing demand […] In this context, the ministry instructed the Dead Sea Preservation Company to draw up a comprehensive plan of the southern tourism product, including the planning of key tourist anchors, among them Timna Park. The plan is being worked on and when it is drawn up it will be presented in accordance with the Planning and Building Law.”