EIN BOKEK, Israel — They say the bromide in the air has a calming effect on the nerves, but it certainly didn’t seem to slow down Toronto native Stanley Morais at a recent news conference promoting travel to the Dead Sea.
An aerial view of Masada
Morais, former head of El Al’s Canadian office, added a jolt of energy to a press briefing meant to tout the virtues of the Dead Sea region. Morais joined local promoters and Israel government tourism officials who urged travel reporters and tour operators to promote the Dead Sea as a travel destination.
Between them, they painted a glowing picture that reinforced visitors’ first-hand experience of enjoying the unique bromide and oxygen-enriched atmosphere at the lowest point on the face of the earth – 420 metres below sea level.
The area, they pointed out, is in the running for selection as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. It recently advanced to the final 28, joining an exclusive club that includes Angel Falls in Venezuela, the Amazon, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and Canada’s own Bay of Fundy. You can vote online at www.new7wonders.com.
It’s no wonder the Dead Sea is considered a world wonder. With 30 per cent salinity, it is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean, making floating for even confirmed “sinkers” like myself easy as pie. Just don’t get any in your eyes, and if you have an open cut, expect a stinging sensation.
Because the Dead Sea is so far below sea level, it benefits from the screening powers of the extra atmosphere, making tanning safer than at higher elevations. It has a higher oxygen content than at sea level, and the region’s mud offers therapeutic healing powers for those afflicted with skin diseases.
For visitors, the area has just about everything a traveller to the Holy Land could want, including a selection of accommodations from tourist class to luxurious, good food and easy access to such historical sites as Masada. It’s also close to the nature reserve at Ein Gedi, and it has 330-plus days of sunshine per year, as well as the healing powers of the Salt Sea.
The area attracts visitors from around the world, including those seeking the region’s curative powers. Some European countries underwrite stays for patients that last several weeks. People with arthritic conditions also respond well to the area’s dry climate and local treatments, which can be found pretty much in all the area’s hotels.
According to Ofra Gazit, marketing and public relations manager for the Tamar Regional Council, which includes the west bank of the Dead Sea, there are 4,000 rooms in 15 hotels (including kibbutz Ein Gedi’s guest house) along the Dead Sea, and despite the international recession, they were 80 per cent full in 2009.
Dov Litvinoff, mayor of the Tamar Regional Council, said $10 million (US) will be invested in the area in the next three to four years. Among the projects on tap are a seaside promenade, beach development, constructing a convention centre and a new park for concerts. There’s even a suggestion that the area will one day accommodate a small landing strip, to make the transfer from Ben-Gurion Airport that much easier.
All this is part of an ongoing effort to attract even more visitors from around the world. A recent trade and marketing conference promoting the Dead Sea attracted tour operators, travel agents and reporters from 15 countries, including Canada, the United States, Brazil, Italy, England, South Korea, France and Russia. Some 42 per cent of the area’s hotel occupants hold foreign passports, with Americans, Russians, Germans, French and Italians the most ubiquitous.
Still, it’s homegrown Israelis who come to the Dead Sea in the greatest numbers. On a recent Friday night at a Dead Sea hotel, the sounds of joyous Shabbat singing gave the hotel a uniquely spiritual atmosphere.
Culture is a major selling point for local officials. In June 2010, the Herodian fortress of Masada will serve as a backdrop for the staging of Verdi’s opera, Nabucco, while a year later Aida will be staged.
Nabucco promises to be a spectacular event and will be broadcast live in high definition to 60 countries.
Gazit points out another potential for growing the area’s tourism business. While it’s still only a vision, it would see the promotion of a sea to sea to sea to sea vacation, which would take travellers to sites on the Mediterranean, Dead and Red seas along with the Sea of Galilee.
As for Morais, he’s busy directing the development of El Al’s international business. The feather in his cap is an arrangement reached with American Airlines, which allows U.S. passengers to fly with El Al ticket coding and more seamlessly make the connection to Israel-bound aircraft.
With Israel’s tourism potential expanding – ministry officials expect to better last year’s three million in 2010 – El Al is seeking to expand its presence in non-traditional markets and develop others that promise a bright future, such as India, Shanghai and Sao Paulo in Brazil. Many of the visitors will no doubt end up at the Dead Sea.
The region is about to become a lot more multicultural and diverse.