Dead Sea is becoming wet blanket for tourism

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

May 13, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- If you built a hotel along something called the Dead Sea, you would expect it to stay, well, dead. Or at least level.

But owners of hotels on the southern tip of the Dead Sea have been watching a Lazarus-like rise of the water at the rate of nearly 8 inches a year.

In a year or two, the waters could be licking their way into the nearest ground floors. Property owners in Ocean City could appreciate the problem.

"In five to 10 years, the hotels would find themselves floating in water," says Dan Ratzkovsky, who is in charge of the Nirvana Hotel.

This is a strange problem for a sea that is actually shrinking. In most years the Dead Sea gets no replenishment, and it evaporates at a rate of about half an inch a year.

But the location of the hotels "isn't the real Dead Sea," explains Yo'av Givati, chairman of the local regional council. "What you call the Dead Sea in the southern area is simply an industrial reservoir."

And a rising one, at that. Here is what happened: After Israel occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River in 1967 and began to use the river, a Dead Sea tributary, for large-scale irrigation projects, the level of the Dead Sea began to drop. The southern tip, an oyster-shell lip of the sea, started drying up.

But the Dead Sea Works, a giant industry based on extracting potash and other minerals from the water, is on that southern tip. To maintain its business, which depends on evaporating the water to get the minerals, the Dead Sea Works carved a canal to the main body of the sea and installed pumps to move water south.

There the water sits in huge, shallow ponds. But this is also the location of the eight hotels that are the main resorts for Dead Sea tourism. Tourists who come to float in the salty water and cover themselves with its famous black mud are not really doing so in the Dead Sea, but rather in Evaporation Pond No. 5.

As the water in the pond evaporates and is replenished by the pumps, the residue salt settles to the bottom. That raises the level of the bottom by 8 inches each year and forces the water on the top ever closer to the lobbies of the beachfront hotels.

More insidiously, the corrosive saltwater eats away at hotel metal and concrete foundations. And the area is prone to earthquakes.

"All the hotels knew about the problem," says Mr. Ratzkovsky, whose Nirvana Hotel is built on stilts to give it a few decades' breathing room. "But we say in Israel, 'besedar' -- don't worry. It's not a problem in my time.' But 20 or 25 years later, it's our time."

Planners considered moving the hotels 20 miles north beside the deeper Dead Sea. But compensating the hotels would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And stopping the Dead Sea Works would be even more expensive.

"There is a problem. On one side, you have a big, important industry. On the other side, you have tourism," says Michal Cohen, an official of the Israel Tourism Authority.

The Dead Sea resort is loath to lose the tourists, especially those with skin disorders who stay for up to a month and give the hotels there the highest average occupancy in the country.

"We don't have oil or gold, but we have something unique. There's only one Dead Sea, and it's in Israel," Ms. Cohen says."

So here is the government's solution: Build a wall. And more hotels.

The $11 million wall, 6 feet high and with a deep foundation, is supposed to block the encroaching water.

There are two problems with it. First, "It is very high and very ugly," said Ariela Mader, an official of the Moriah Hotel, the closest to the sea. "Guests on the first floor of the hotel won't be able to see the sea."

Second, given the rate of the water rise, it will delay the problem for only about 10 years. Then another solution will be needed.

The government's proposal to double the number of hotels is based on the theory that the area must be bolstered as a tourist site before another resort spot crops up on the Dead Sea and detracts from the existing businesses.

"Maybe if we had to start all over 30 or 40 years ago, we would have gone somewhere else," says Joseph Eshel, director of the government-owned Arad and Dead Sea Regional Development Co.

"But now we are here. We have all the facilities. We have the reputation," he says. "We have to stay."

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