TOURISM POTENTIAL: (This image and below) Views of the Machtesh Ramon crater near the southern Israeli city of Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev deser

NEGEV IN ISRAEL OFFERS LUXURY CAMPING AND DESERT ACTIVITIES ISRAEL is promoting luxury camping trips, Bedouin hospitality and challenging outdoor ac­tivities like dune surfing as the country seeks to bolster tourism to its vast and largely undevel­oped Negev desert region. In addition, a new international airport is rising from the desert floor 18 kilometres (11 miles) from the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat and the neigh­bouring Jordanian port of Aqaba. Tourism in Israel is big business, bringing in $5.8 billion (£4.4bn) in 2017. Arrivals to the country of about eight million citi­zens hit a record 3.6 million last year, the Israeli tourism ministry said. The US, Russia, France, Germany and Britain ac­counted for most of the visitors. The ministry says that it now is seeking to grow the Negev’s share of total Israeli tourist revenue from the present five per cent to 20 per cent within two to three years. It also aims to increase the num­ber of Negev hotel rooms from 2,000 to about 5,000 within six to seven years. Israel is marketing the desert as a unique destina­tion on Europe’s doorstep. “When it’s very cold in Europe, let’s say in De­cember, January and February, we have very mild temperatures in the Negev,” the tourism ministry’s Uri Sharon told journalists on a tour of the sparsely populated region. Activities on offer include hiking, biking, rock climbing, abseiling and dune surfing – akin to snowboarding on sand. The Negev is also home to a geological marvel: the Ramon Crater, the world’s largest erosion crater. Salaam El Wadj has opened up the encamp­ment where he lives with his wife, children and goats to visitors, who can stay in one of the tents and listen to his stories of Bedouin life. “I was born here in the Negev hills,” he tells his visitors over strong, sweet tea. Wadj relates how the arrival a century ago of British and French administrators and, in 1948, officials of the new state of Israel, brought a drive for modernisation that disrupted and threatened the nomadic Bedouin way of life. Hosting tourists, he said, enables him to pre­serve his heritage. “They don’t want to just sleep in a Bedouin camp but also to learn,” he said. Hikers can walk along part of the Negev High­land Trail, covering about 12 km a day between Bedouin camps while their luggage is transported by vehicle. Near Wadj’s site, Hannah and Eyal Izrael have planted vineyards on terraces where Nabatean farmers cultivated vines 2,000 years ago. Their Carmey Avdat winery produces just 5,000 bottles a year of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other wines. Eyal supplements his income by offering tourist accommodation in cabins and group tours to sur­rounding sites of interest rather than industrialis­ing his winemaking. Visitors can help run the pro­duction line and bottle, cork and label their choice of wine personally. “All the time there are tourists from all over the world coming to the Israeli desert to explore, trek, taste our wine, go to other farms to taste goat’s cheese,” he said. “The Negev is a very safe and accessible desert and it’s warm here.” The vines grow in a natural basin, watered in winter by runoff from the surrounding hills and augmented with a modern irrigation system fed by desalinated sea water piped from the Mediterrane­an coast. Not far from Carmey Avdat is the town of Mitzpe Ramon, which stands at the edge of the Ramon Cra­ter. There, travellers after tranquility with a luxurious twist can go “glamping” – glamour camping – in luxury tents with hot showers and a personal chef When inky night falls over the crater’s floor, there is the option of gazing through high-powered tele­scopes at the stars shining brightly in the unpollut­ed sky. The Negev’s heart is only about a two-hour drive from Israel’s main international airport near Tel Aviv. The new Ramon Airport, where construction began in May 2013, will bring jumbo jets from around the globe to the desert itself. Its website says that it will be able to initially han­dle up to two million passengers annually and will be able to expand to a capacity of 4.2 million by 2030. Low-cost and charter airlines currently flying to Ovda airport, about 60 km away from Eilat, will move to Ramon, it says. They include Ryanair, Wizz Air, easyJet, SAS, Finnair and Ural Airlines. Israeli media say the airport is expected to start operations this autumn, in time for the November-May winter tourist season, but the Israel Airports Authority (IAA) is making no official forecasts. The IAA says the original specifications for the project were revised in light of lessons learned dur­ing the 2014 Gaza war. After a rocket fired by Hamas militants in Gaza hit near the perimeter of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion In­ternational Airport, international carriers suspend­ed flights. IAA spokesman Ofer Lefler said the revised plans for Ramon airport will allow it to serve as a backup in addition to boosting tourism. “In an emergency, not only will Israel’s entire passenger air fleet be able to land and park there, but also additional aircraft,” he said. (AFP)