Negev: Full of Adventures

Amid the gloomy statistics of declining tourism to Israel, there are a couple bright spots for the foreign visitor willing to explore beyond the beaten track and eager to save some serious money.

For one, there are few places in the world where the ancient and the modern meet and meld as spectacularly as in the northern Negev.

Throughout Israel, but especially in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, hotel prices have been slashed 50 to 70 percent. For anyone with a modest bank account who has hankered to see the sun rise over the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City from a luxury suite in the storied King David Hotel, or to view the sweep of Tel Aviv’s coastline on top of the David Intercontinental Hotel — now is the time to go.

Even for the veteran visitor to Israel, the recent trip laid on by the country’s Ministry of Tourism was an eye-opener.

The starting point for any exploration of the northern Negev is Beersheba, a site where the Abraham settled more than 4,000 years ago, and which the Bible mentions even before Jerusalem.

Over the last 53 years, the "Capital of the South" has transformed itself from a sleepy Bedouin oasis into a city of 200,000, whose residents hail from 63 countries.

The most recent wave of immigrants over the past four months have come from Argentina, who were preceded by the Russians, who make up most of the city’s symphony orchestra.

The present economic situation in Beersheba is difficult, outweighing security concerns. But as Mayor Yaakov Terner, a veteran fighter pilot, police commissioner and a reassuringly tough, no-nonsense Israeli of the old school, put it, "We continue to live. No one can make us be afraid."

A symbol of Beersheba’s future is the handsome 16,000-student campus of Ben-Gurion University, whose president, Avishay Braverman, tells all comers that the future of Israel’s expanding population lies in the Negev.

Beersheba is the base and jumping-off point for explorations of other parts of the northern Negev, by jeep, camel, or, for the more intrepid, by foot.

Some 53 miles south of Beersheba lies Mitzpeh Ramon, about 3,000 feet above sea level. Until recently, the town’s main claim to fame was the 25-mile-long Ramon Crater, a stunning feat of nature, formed over hundreds of millions of years.

Sometimes dubbed "Israel’s Grand Canyon," the Ramon Crater is still a magnet for geology buffs, hunters of marine and dinosaur fossils, hardy hikers and seekers of spiritual repose, but now the town itself is attracting its share of tourists.

With an energetic push from a group of young activists, Mitzpeh Ramon is transforming from a failed industrial development town into an artistic center, with a distinct touch of 1960s Haight-Ashbury. A hangar has been taken over by a "healing dance" company, a former ceramics factory houses a gallery and teepee-like sleeping accommodations, and mini-entrepreneurs produce soaps, oils and sandals.

Just outside Mitzpeh Ramon, in another unexpected Negev encounter, is a ranch where llamas and alpacas, far from their native Andes Mountains of South America, are successfully bred for their high-quality wool.

Leading north from the Ramon Crater, one can follow part of the ancient Nabatean spice route to Avdat, along which the incense, perfume and spices from India and the Arabian Peninsula were transported by camel to Gaza and the Mediterranean coast.

Later incorporated into the Roman empire, the Avdat area is the site of a reconstructed Byzantine fortress of the fourth century CE, and includes remnants of Nabatean agriculture, utensils and pottery workshops.

Heading north, back toward Beersheba, lies Kibbutz Sde Boker, where David Ben-Gurion, the Negev’s most famous resident (well, next to Abraham) spent most of the last 20 years of his life, and where he shares a simple gravesite with his wife, Paula.

The hut where the Ben-Gurions lived has been turned into a museum, with a 5,000-book library. His vision of the Negev as the thriving home for millions of Jews has yet to be fulfilled.

In the meanwhile, the area’s often harsh and rugged beauty, still largely unspoiled, beckons the more adventurous tourist.