Israelis have long ignored the vast scorching flatlands of the Negev desert in the southern part of the country. But more and more now see it as a healthy alternative for a weekend getaway -- or for checking out for good.
MITZPE RAMON – To most Israelis, Mitzpe Ramon is just some dot on the map in the middle of the Negev Desert, a dull market town built in 1951. For 50 years, it was known for having one of the nation's highest unemployment rates.
But Ilan, 62, has a different take on the place. He has chosen the half-disused industrial zone of the sleepy city to pitch his own "love and reflection corner." This is a sort of open-air lounge dedicated to poetry, openness and human kindness. "People who feel like sitting on the couches and having a chat are welcome to do so. I'll provide the coffee," he says. "The open air and the landscapes free the mind, and get you in touch with yourself. This is the reason why I settled here; people don't talk to each other anymore."
In Mitzpe Ramon, town officials and local cops don't mind letting Ilan occupy a corner of the public space for his poetic purposes, as he soliloquizes in front of his "Love Sussita", a car made in Israel during the 1960s and 1970s that he's turned into a garden on wheels, a symbol of his crusade.
But the poet-retiree is not alone. Like him, tens of thousands are moving to the desert to take a break from the city, or to discover new opportunities. There are those who now come regularly on holiday or spend a growing portion of their time here. But others decide to settle down for good, leaving their urban past behind.
Arnaud Rodrigue, a 45-year-old former management consultant, is among those who have made a definitive escape. He came from France six years ago and opened Chez Eugène, a quaint hotel-restaurant that appears like an oasis of class in a decrepit landscape. "Whether they are Israeli or foreigners, people are discovering the wonders of this region." Is it hard living in the Negev? "Yes, it is. But the Negev's possibilities are huge. Farms are producing cheese which you could never find elsewhere in Israel, but which gets exported. There are also amazing wines and fish farms. For the smart and audacios, there are good prospects here."
On the road from Tel Aviv to the middle of the Negev Desert, landscapes are being transformed, from the lush gardens of the center of the Jewish State to the semi-arid dunes and to the wide expanses of golden sand. Beyond here, the view is filled with scattered rocks with volcano fractures and angular summits – it offers the air of a Western movie set.
Apart from shiny trucks and a few buses, there aren't many people on the road heading South from Mitzpe Ramon toward the Red Sea resort of Eilat. Near a nameless crossroads, a few Bedouin shepherds watch their small goat flock while their wives sweep up under the tent. Outside, children in rags toss stones at a stray dog.
It is here, in this remote place at the end of a stony path, that 38-year-old Yoav Stern settled down, in a second-hand caravan. Every weekend, he runs meditation seminars for overstressed executives from Tel Aviv, London and beyond. The "trainings' are fully booked and include a visit to the center of the Negev. Tourists sleep under the stars.
"You can feel the vibes. Israelis come here to forget their difficult lives, the threats of a war with Iran," says the guru-therapist. "Foreigners come here to fill the emptiness of a dull life with new sensations."
Such a gold mine has not escaped the mainstream tourism industry. In Mitzpe Ramon, the five-star Beresheet Hotel, whose rooms open on a meteor crater, has quietly become one of the most popular luxury destinations of the Middle East. But you also can find more affordable accommodations in the area: guestrooms at farms, kibbutzim that welcome travelers, and even a village with real Indian teepees.
"For 60 years, the Negev Desert was nothing more than huge training grounds for the Army, which turned a third of the land into a closed military zone," says Michaël, the owner of a kiosk on the outskirts of Beersheva. "Today, this is the playground of the modern upper-class hippies looking for the thrill of authenticity."
Still, the Israeli Ministry of Defense is also transferring some of its most important military bases here to build a new high-tech hub. This gigantic project of a Desert Silicon Valley is slated to open in 2018 and will cost $5.5 billion. But in these spots, the tourists, the curious-minded and the authenticity hunters surely won't be welcome.
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Photo - Beresheet/Isrotel