This land is the lowest on the face of the earth--at the northern shore of the Dead Sea. At 400 meters below sea level, the scenery is unique in all the world. The region straddles the River Jordan and lies at the point where Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian-controlled territories meet.
Little has changed since Biblical times. But with economic development a Middle East paradigm, entrepreneurs are talking about turning this shore into a major tourist center. All parties--Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians--agree that tourism has the greatest potential for cooperation and a quick payoff.
"There is no place that can compete with the Dead Sea," says Shlomo Eshkol, who headed a team of architects and town planners that drew up a master plan for the area. The northern Dead Sea is less than an hour's drive from Jerusalem and Amman. Bounded on the east by the mountains of Moab and on the west by the Judean desert, the region is steeped in historical and religious lore. Among the major attractions are the Qumran, the hiding place of the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Biblical town of Jericho. There are also ruins of monasteries from the period of Byzantine Christianity.
A major disadvantage is the summer heat: Temperatures can climb to more than 40C. But the master plan calls for air-conditioned bubbles of clear plastic to create pleasant pockets during the scorching months.
Israel's tourism officials say that surveys conducted in the U.S. and Europe show that the Dead Sea has great potential for both recreational and health tourism. The Ministry of Tourism also believes Arabs from the gulf are likely to be attracted to the region.
WATER CURE. Israel has already been successful at developing a health resort at Ein Bokek, located halfway down the western side of the 75-km-long Dead Sea. The hot-sulfur springs and mud are thought to have curative powers for psoriasis, rheumatism, arthritis, and even lower-back pain. That's why tens of thousands of Germans and Scandinavians come to Ein Bokek hotels every year--on visits paid for by their national health insurance. Apart from the curative powers of the water, the sun is a big selling point--especially to sun-starved Northern Europeans. The region is so far below sea level that most of the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays are filtered out by the extra depth of the atmosphere. "It's a sunbather's paradise," says Eli Gonen, director general of the Israeli tourism ministry.
The Oct. 26 peace treaty with Jordan and last year's agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization have opened up new opportunities for tourism. The recently completed master plan envisages 8,000 hotel rooms, a horse-racing track, water parks, and even a Dead Sea cruise ship.
The price tag? Upwards of $1 billion. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has given its go-ahead for detailed planning and initial funding for
The potential of the Dead Sea has already led a number of companies to move ahead with projects. The peace process has also brought together some first-time partnerships between Jews and Arabs.
Africa Israel Investments Ltd., a leading Israeli real estate and tourism company, has teamed up with Jordan's Triangle Ltd., owned by a group df Jordanian and Palestinian businessmen, for a joint project--with the blessing of King Hussein.
The two companies plan to invest $200 million in hotels and attractions on both sides of the border. The first hotels could be in business by 1996.
Africa Israel, the Holiday Inn franchisee for Israel, is holding discussions with the U.S. hotel-and-resort chain about taking an equity position in the joint development. "A combination of the three of us could enable us to succeed and turn the region into a project for peace," says Joshua Kislev, senior assistant general manager of Africa Israel.