A leading environmental group warns the proposal would harm ‘one of the most sensitive and rarest nature sites in Israel’

Bathers swim in the Red Sea with hotels in the background.
Bathers swim in the Red Sea with hotels in the background.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Zafrir Rinat Aug. 19, 2021

An Interior Ministry plan to promote construction of tourism facilities in the undeveloped southern Gulf of Eilat has sparked fierce opposition by environmental organizations. The proposal, drawn up by the ministry’s planning department and the Tourism Ministry, would add accommodation and other facilities to the area, which is home to rare plant and animal species. The plan was submitted a few weeks ago for comments from the public and from other government ministries, with discussions to follow soon.

The proposal divides the Gulf of Eilat into two areas: the northern part, where most tourism activity is slated to remain focused; and the southern part, from south of the port to the Egyptian border, known as Ein Suf. The new proposal envisions the southern part as a “unique nature tourism area offering quiet and relaxation in the desert landscape.” This area is important because it is the only one where territorial contiguity has been preserved from the Eilat Mountains to the Red Sea. Previous master plans recognized its ecological significance and promised to protect it.

The policy document, which includes maps, proposes building, mainly in or near already developed areas, tourist facilities targeting younger adults with “current, independent and content-focused overnight solutions.” It notes that the specified zone offers a range of possibilities for new overnight accommodations using sustainable building methods “and an architectural language that will enhance the experience of being close to nature.”

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel says that behind the language of the proposal lies “an aggressive building program on the slopes of the Eilat Mountains, which are one of the most sensitive and rarest nature sites in Israel.” The organization says the plan will lead to the erection of buildings in a large number of places, across a broad area. Some of these are not adjacent to developed areas and their construction will cause great damage to open areas. The SPNI asks for these sites to be removed from the proposal, together with a return to the national master plan for the country’s coasts, which designates this area for preservation.

The environmental organizations were also critical of the absence of what they term critical recommendations for increasing the dimensions of the nature reserves in the Gulf of Eilat, including one in the northern gulf containing seagrass, a vital component of the gulf’s ecology.

The advocacy groups slammed the suggestion of the Interior Ministry’s planning department to define areas of the gulf as a “seabed reserve,” a relatively new category in which only the seabed and the 5 meters above it are considered a nature reserve. This label is aimed at allowing tourism or economic activities on the water’s surface to continue unchecked. The environmental organizations say that the constant movement of animals renders the notion moot, while adding that a nature reserve can coexist with various activities in and on the water.

In a written response, the Environmental Protection Ministry said that it “views great importance in avoiding overdevelopment in the southern Gulf of Eilat, which is rich in nature.”