Dead Sea rebounds from pandemic slump as tourist magnet for Jordan

Treacherous sinkholes have not deterred visitors seeking desert sun and medicinal mud baths at the lowest point on earth

SWEIMEH, Jordan – Jacqui Taylor Basker, an art historian from lower Manhattan, loved making annual trips to Jordan to teach college classes and visit the Dead Sea, where the desert air and mineral-suffused water provided relief from asthma and annoying skin conditions.

After two years in which COVID-19 kept the Hashemite kingdom closed to most outsiders, Basker has now come back to soak up the winter sun at the lowest place on earth. She was unprepared, however, for the extent to which some of her favorite beaches have turned into a moonscape of craggy rubble and salt-encrusted sinkholes.

“I was shocked,” she told The Circuit. “The Dead Sea is a great Jordanian treasure and must be protected for everyone.”

Because of damage caused by industry and government policy blunders, the Dead Sea has shrunk by approximately one-third over the past five decades. The retreating waters have left underground cavities that periodically cause roads, trucks and buildings to collapse into gaping holes.

The treacherous terrain, though, has not deterred visitors from abroad, who often arrive on European charter flights that deliver them to the desert spas and medicinal mud baths for which the Dead Sea is famous. During the first nine months of 2022, some 3.6 million foreign tourists visited Jordan, already beating government targets for the whole year. Dead Sea hotels reported 80% occupancy, rising to 96% on some weekends.

“Regardless of the environmental issues at the Dead Sea, all the hotels are packed,” Hatem Bataineh, sales manager for the Crown Plaza hotel chain in Amman, told The Circuit.

Before the pandemic, Jordan hit a tourism record in 2019, recording 5.4 million foreign visitors. That plunged to 1.2 million in 2020 when COVID-19 surfaced and borders closed around the world.

Marking the lowest point on earth at 1,430 feet (430 meters) below sea level, the renowned body of water is bordered by Jordan, Israel and the West Bank. Jordan and Israel have reaped benefits from the Dead Sea’s distinction as a natural wonder, drawing tourists from around the world to float on its hypersaline surface – 10 times saltier than the ocean – and seek the dermatological benefits of its rich mineral content. The Palestinian Authority hasn’t managed to turn its 16 miles of Dead Sea coastline into a tourism moneymaker, in part because of disputes with Israel over granting construction permits, and partly because of the difficulty of attracting private investment to the conflict-hobbled West Bank.

All three have also been stalemated in trying to stop the Dead Sea from disappearing and repair at least some of the damage that chokes the Jordan River, its only source for replenishment. Just last month, Jordan and Israel signed an agreement in Egypt at the U.N.’s COP27 climate conference, expressing their intent to build wastewater plants and reduce pollution in the river they share, restoring some of its flow to the Dead Sea.

The once-rolling Jordan River has shrunk to just 7% of its capacity from the 1960s, when both countries diverted the water for national irrigation projects. In turn, the water level of the Dead Sea drops four to five feet per year, leaving it some 15% shallower than in 1970.

“It’s not irreversible,” said Christian Siebert, a hydrogeologist at the Helmholtz-Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, who does fieldwork at the Dead Sea. If the two countries were to open their major upstream dams, he told The Circuit, “the situation would tremendously relax.”

The Dead Sea was a critical early source of state income for both Jordan and Israel, whose companies — ICL Group and Arab Potash Co. — became world-leading exporters of fertilizer and pesticide ingredients extracted from the water. Mud masks, exfoliating creams and cosmetics made from Dead Sea minerals line pharmacy shelves and duty-free shops in both countries.

To harvest the lucrative minerals, both companies subdivided the lower portion of the Dead Sea into evaporating pools that run in parallel across the midwater border and built massive processing plants on opposite banks. Over more than 60 years of business, the water depletion from the industrial operations, together with the throttling of the Jordan River, has left broad patches of dry land so that the frontier can be traversed by vehicles.

The water gap has also played havoc on the surrounding land in both Jordan and Israel, with thousands of sinkholes opening up that have required the closure of beaches and roads. Once-bustling resorts have had to move inland or shut down entirely as snack bars, changing rooms and gas stations disappeared into the gaping holes, some as deep as 35 feet. Farmers on Jordan’s western shore in Ghor Haditha can no longer use tractors on their tomato fields because of the fragile earth.

“The surface collapses and swallows everything above,” Siebert said. “Cars, roads, buildings — whatever.”

Efforts to rehabilitate the Jordan River or find new sources of water to replenish the Dead Sea have been stymied by politics and cost. While Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994, relations remain chilly and joint projects frequently stumble.

Extensive plans for building a channel south to the Red Sea that would bring water flowing into the Dead Sea tripped over its $11 billion price tag. Dubbed the “Dead-Red Canal,” it accompanied another failed plan known as the “Dead-Med” project that would have piped water in from the Mediterranean.

Among the activists pushing the government to take action is Amman radio personality Mona Naffa Nazzal, who says the Dead Sea is a pillar of Jordan’s national identity. Foreign visitors find it irresistible to bring home the iconic photo in which they are floating on their back and reading a newspaper or a book that stays dry because the water’s salinity won’t let them sink.

If the Dead Sea dries up, she said, “this photo will be lost.”

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