Tourism and Desert – “Will two walk together unless they agreed?” (Amos 3:3)

August 15, 2017

It is interesting to know that tourism was born in the desert when Moses sent the spies to “explore the land” before the first conquest of Canaan by the Children of Israel (Numbers 13: 2). The Hebrew word for tourism origins lies in the ancient Hebrew practice during the days of the Bible, meaning to explore and investigate.

The Hebrew language developed in the areas of the ancient Near East where there is a wide variety of desert types. Our language is so rich that it contains no less than seven different words, all of which relate to a dry, arid, warm space (in Hebrew – Arava, Yeshimon, Harava, Shmama, Zia, Taluva). No less than seven concepts define different nuances of the geographical phenomenon familiar to us as a desert. The Bible uses the word desert 271 times. It turns out that the principal meaning for desert is a place for grazing and feeding of the sheep.

Since biblical times, these words have undergone many manifestations of meaning, and today we no longer distinguish in our daily language between the desert suitable for raising sheep and the dry desert where sheep do not have the opportunity to graze. The other words are now used interchangeably in Hebrew, and we are no longer careful about the Biblical nuances that Hebrew speakers had in the past.

Our desert tourism today offers a wide variety of ways to enjoy the desert in ways unknown in biblical times. Our desert offers peace and quiet, a refuge from the rapid and bustling pace of life in modern society. In our generation, the desert has returned to be relevant, offering every visitor a sane, relaxing and enjoyable holiday and rest, which stands in stark contrast to the stormy daily life that characterizes modern human life in Western society.

In recent studies of desert tourism in Israel, we found that the Israeli desert is in fact the most friendly desert in the world. This is not only for us Israelis, but also for the many tourists who visit Israel. Here are some of the reasons for this:

  • Our desert is close and easily accessible to Europeans.
  • Our desert is rich in plenty of marked trails – Israel is the most marked country in the world in the ratio of space to the number of hiking trails.
  • In the Israeli desert, the rescue units are recognized as one of the best in the world, they receive assistance from our excellent air force, assisting in any required rescue.
  • Advanced, quality Western medical services are available within a short distance.
  • Most of the Israeli desert is covered by cellular communications networks.
  • The residents of the desert in Israel welcome guests and offer a variety of hospitality experiences with personal taste.

The Negev Highlands is one of the most beautiful areas in Israel, a vast desert, with Genesis landscapes. Its high part rises to a height of about 1,000 meters, from which one can view the magnificent Ramon Crater. The crater phenomenon is unique to the Negev Highlands and the Ramon Crater is the largest of the impressive erosion craters. Alongside the impressive landscape, the area includes dozens of archeological sites, reminiscent of the days when one of the most important ways in the ancient world crossed the desert through the Nabatean Spice Route, which extended from Petra in Jordan to the port of Gaza. Convoys with thousands of camels made their way through the desert laden with incense, perfumes and spices on their long journey to Europe. On the Incense Route, ancient cities such as Avdat and Shivta remain silent evidence of the rich and luxurious life of the merchants and city dwellers at the height of the Nabataean kingdom. Mount Negev is not only landscapes and history, it is a living and advanced area that offers a look at the modern life of man in the desert, and has a wealth of tourist attractions and a variety of recreational activities and interesting options for each style.

For hundreds of years the Negev Highlands region was almost empty of people. The Spice Route ended its role during the ninth century CE, under the rule of the Abbasid monarch who ruled the Middle East from his capital Baghdad. The ancient cities were abandoned and turned into ruins. Only the Bedouin – desert people – remained. Migratory tribes of shepherds who used to move between the water sources and the grazing areas, recognizing every stone, every tree and every road in the vast desert. The Bedouin have a long tradition of unique hospitality, camels and tents that are suitable for the harsh desert conditions. The Negev is one of the few places in the world where these ancient traditions have been preserved. The residents of the Negev Highlands preserve a tradition that is disappearing from the world. The desert visitors who wish to do so will be able to get to know the Bedouin closely and taste their impressive culture. The Bedouins offer a unique hospitality experience, including their unique customs: the tradition of preparing the unique coffee, sleeping in a traditional tent, and going out with camels to the heart of the desert.

Since the founding of the State of Israel, new residents have joined returning agriculture to the desert, using innovative methods alongside the restoration of ancient agricultural methods. The Negev Highlands is high, dry and cold in the winter and therefore is especially suitable for growing grapes. In many places in the Negev Highlands you can enjoy a spectacular play of green vineyards against the backdrop of the brown desert landscape. Due to the unique climate, Israel’s finest grapes are grown in this area, at a level that would not shame the quality European vineyards. Naturally, local wineries were also established and wine lovers can find several wineries in the area that offer wine tastings, as well as leaning of grape growing in the desert and wine preparation processes, and of course, one can purchase fine wine directly from the supplier to the consumer. The Negev Highlands offers today a good and interesting wine route, which combines the wine experience with a rich variety of landscapes and other human experiences, and of course you can find good cheeses and high quality olive oil alongside the wine.

Most of the vineyards are planted near small farms, which apart from wine and grapes also offer quality and enjoyable accommodation. Many are built in an ecological way, suitable for the desert weather. The construction is based on the use of local materials while maintaining a high standard. Every farm has its own character, and therefore hospitality everywhere is different and unique. Some of the places also offer quality food, cheese preparation workshops, production experience and tasting of olive oil and of course wine tasting. The combination of the quiet desert, good wine and an aesthetic guesthouse is a recommended experience for visitors to Israel.

Those who reach the desert will discover the wonders of the sky on the first night, the dry air and desert darkness create perfect conditions for viewing the stars. You do not have to be an expert in astronomy to enjoy the starry sky. For those interested in getting to know the stars closely, it is recommended to do so in Mitzpeh Ramon. The desert town is a world center for astronomy, and every year thousands of astronomy enthusiasts come to watch the stars. The place offers plenty of excellent instructors with extensive knowledge, with professional and high-quality telescopes.

You cannot ignore the wild landscape that will accompany you from the moment you go up to the Negev Highlands mountains, valleys, craters and dry creeks surround you. The observation point of Ramon Crater will make everyone understand how great the desert is and how small we are. In the Negev Highlands, there are hundreds of walking trails suitable for every age and for any degree of difficulty. The area crosses the ‘Negev Highland Trail’, which passes between settlements and are great for non-experienced travelers who do not have professional walking equipment. The Negev is a paradise for jeep tours that take you deep into the desert, to places that were previously accessible only to camel riders. For the more adventurous types, you can cliff-climb or rappel at the Ramon Crater. In the sand dunes of the northern Negev Highlands, a unique attraction of sand surfing is offered, sliding down the large sand dunes on professional surfboards – a special and enjoyable experience in a delightful desert atmosphere. Cycling enthusiasts will find the Negev Highlands as a true paradise where dozens of bicycle paths are paved, some of which are based on ancient camel trails. For the road bicycle riders, this is a pristine, safe and pleasant space that attracts many people from all over the world, as the Negev offers great weather conditions for riding.

The desert tranquility is a source of inspiration and a fertile ground for artists who come here for inspiration. Many of these artists invite you to their galleries and private homes. In Mitzpeh Ramon you are able to get to learn about traditional mud building. The place offers a charming and enjoyable workshop for both children and adults. The special desert soil enables creation and construction of high quality and makes local use of ecological building.

The land, the plants, the animals and the local inhabitants are the raw materials of the desert spirit that is so special to the Negev. For thousands of years, humans have created a unique and rich culture that offers a wide variety of recreational possibilities, relaxing or active vacation. From ancient biblical times until today, the desert is considered a rare and special country, where only the best arrive. You are invited to join the best and visit our ancient desert.

See you in the world’s most friendly desert!

by Shahar Shilo – Negev Highlands Tourism