TEL AVIV, Sept 7 — The stark Negev Desert, filled with craters, multicoloured sand and clusters of Bedouin villages, comprises more than half of Israel’s total mass. And thanks to a bevy of new promotions on desert lodging and tourism, savvy travellers looking to stretch their shekels in the Holy Land will find the Negev an affordable alternative to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
Looking to boost incoming tourism numbers, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism announced earlier this year the Eilat Directive, a financial incentive of €45 (RM226.7) per passenger to airlines willing to fly into Israel’s Ovdah Airport, located in the Negev not far from the southern resort city for which the directive is named.
A number of low-cost aviation companies and tour operators — from nations including Russia, Poland, France, Hungary and Slovakia — took advantage of the directive, and the result is a slew of new cut-rate fare options for travellers flying into Israel from Europe.
So high is the demand, in fact, that a new airport is being built to handle the traffic. The gleaming new air transport hub just outside Eilat, called the Ilan and Assaf Ramon Airport, will be ready next year.
Budget lodging is also on the rise. Tour operators and locals residents in the Negev Desert are scrambling to offer their own affordable lodging to visitors.
A number of desert kibbutzim (communities), including Kibbutz Eilot Eilat, Kibbutz Lotan and Kibbutz Neot Semadar, have unveiled English-language webpages to market their own private guesthouse options, where double occupancy rates for rooms with kitchenettes, including access to kibbutz amenities like swimming pools and basketball courts, average around 420 shekels (RM500) a night.
“These are all cheap and comfortable places to stay, and in the areas around each kibbutz there are so many things to do, like biking or hiking or driving to see the beautiful desert,” said Iris Danieli, the tourism manager of the Eilot Regional Council, Israel’s southernmost district.
“If you love to travel in the desert, this is the place to do it.”
For visitors who are not afraid to rough it out, even more rock-bottom options are available. Raz Arbel, a longtime tourism manager, created, as part of the “Friendly Desert Initiative”, a do-it-yourself online trekking and camping guide called the Negev Highlands Trail.
The trail guide offers two-, three-, four- and five-day itineraries, all snaking across the Negev Highlands and offering visitors access to the town of Mitzpe Ramon and its gaping Ramon Crater, regarded as Israel’s Grand Canyon; to Sde Boker, the beloved home of Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion; and across undulating desert craters striped in yellow and pink; through desert oases where green water pools from limestone and dolomite; and past herds of ibex and the world’s last remaining handful of Arabian leopards.
“We realised we have a product here, which is a very comfortable desert, a desert that you don’t have to be an extremist outdoor person to be able to explore,” Arbel said.
“So we collected all the components we have here, the beautiful cliffs and nature parks, the Bedouins themselves — the authentic residents of the Negev — and we found there is so much we have to offer to a solo traveller or a person who doesn’t want to travel in a group or spend a lot of money.” — TODAY