by David Rosenberg
Long before there was an Israel, a Jordan or a Palestinian Authority, the Dead Sea was formed over millions of years by the movement of the earth's crust and water flowing down from the Jordan River. No thanks to human activity, which has only done it damage, it's one of the world's great wonders because of its location at the lowest point on earth, the effects of its intense salinity and the beauty of its surroundings.
But that hasn't stopped the Dead Sea from being the object of flag-waving patriotism, political point-scoring and potential profits as the people and governments of the two countries and a third country in the making lobby for their shared patrimony to be declared one of nature's seven wonders.
The Dead Sea is one of the top 10 among 28 finalists in a three-year-long race to make it into the coveted list being orchestrated by the Switzerland-based New7Wonders Foundation. The winners will be announced on Friday. Among the Dead Sea's rivals are America's Grand Canyon, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Puerto Princesa Underground River in the Philippines and Italy's Mount Vesuvius.
The 800-square kilometer (310 square mile) body of water will be there for bathers, sightseers and people seeking relief for psoriasis and rheumatism whether it makes the list or not. But that hasn't stopped people no less than Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from weighing in with an appeal for votes.
"It's a magical place and we want to develop it," he told the country's school children in a YouTube video this week. "One way to do so is to bring more tourists there."
Israel has been running an 8.75 million-shekel ($2.4 million) marketing campaign since May, most of which was spent promoting the Dead Sea's candidacy abroad because Israel's population alone wouldn't be big enough to influence the vote. It worked well enough, vaulting it ahead of such famed places as South Africa's Table Mountain (despite an endorsement by Nelson Mandela) and Australia's Ayers Rock.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority Tourism Minister Kholoud Daibes explained that the PA is undertaking a promotion campaign to "confirm our right and ownership of part of the Dead Sea and to prevent Israel having an opportunity to claim full control." The Tourism Ministry is sponsoring television and radio advertising and a school program, according to the Palestinian Authority press office.
Over on the eastern side of the sea, Jordan is promoting the Dead Sea as a wonder, too. The country launched its campaign 20 months ago through media outlets, social media tools and the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) website. The Amman municipality last week organized a festival on the Dead Sea shores to encourage Jordanians to vote. Zain, a local cellular provider, cut the charge for SMS messages by half.
"The next few days are very important to intensify voting for the site," Tourism and Antiquities Nayef Al-Fayez told The Jordan Times on Monday.
Why do they care? To attract more tourists is the answer.
The Palestinians can expect little economic benefits because under the terms of the 1994 Oslo accords, Israel retains control for now of the Dead Sea's western shore. But Israel and Jordan see big benefits.
"Having more tourists means that we need more investments and this would help provide more job opportunities for Jordanians," Al-Fayez said. More visitors to the Dead Sea would help make up for the drop in tourism that began with the Arab Spring.
Jordan is still enjoying the effects of having Petra, the 2,000-year-old desert city carved out of rock, named among the seven man-made wonders in the New7Wonders Foundation's previous contest in 2007. Last year, before the Arab Spring hit, Petra was by far the kingdom's top tourist site, with some 963,000 visitors.
Israel hosts about 1.5 million foreign visitors every year to its Dead Sea beaches, hiking trails and resorts, but Pini Shani, the Israeli Tourism Ministry's director of overseas development, said being an official top seven wonder would bring even more.
"The exposure that we get from a victory would be huge. The organizers estimate that 1 billion people will vote, so you get exposure in the eyes of 1 billion people. You get the seal of approval as an interesting destination," Shani told The Media Line. "All these factors bring economic benefits and bring more tourists."
The Dead Sea isn't the only shared site among the Seven Wonders contestants. Bangladesh and India share the Sundarbans, Italy and Switzerland share the Matterhorn/Cervino, the Amazon is bordered by Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. But it is the only contestant shared by countries with simmering political disputes.
Jordan and Israel have had formal diplomatic relations for more than a decade and a half, but there is little bilateral trade or tourism. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been frozen for close to three years despite efforts by the U.S. and other Western powers to restart them.
Indeed, a tourist wanting to traverse the Dead Sea region would encounter a host of insurmountable borders and tight security. Eamonn Fitzgerald, the head of Communication, at New7Wonders, told The Media Line that he nevertheless hoped that the shared effort to promote the Dead Sea would help to break down barriers.
"The Middle East is beset with regional difficulties and although Israel, Jordan and Palestine are not officially coordinating their efforts, we hope that by making our voting platform available to all the parties, something good will develop from a shared pride in what the region has to offer locals and visitors alike," he said in an e-mail interview.
So far, it doesn't look like it is doing much. The New7Wonders' selection procedure does everything to encourage both sophisticated marketing campaigns and grassroots social media efforts. Even more than politicians and tourist board officials, ordinary people have used the Dead Sea campaign to promote their own countries at the expense of others.
On the New7Wonders of Nature Facebook site, Dead Sea posts have provoked a frenzy of political attacks. One touting Israeli fashion designers putting their creative talent behind the Dead Sea campaign, elicits comments such as "There is no country named Israel!!! They just occupied Palestine...Free Palestine now," "Dead Sea is for the Arabs and Muslims and not for Israel...Think well guys and vote for Jeita Grotto Lebanon!!!" and "Dead Sea in Palestine !! Vote for Palestine."
For the PA, the Dead Sea bid will help cement its claims on the region. The PA included the Dead Sea on its list of world heritage sites in preparation for its successful bid to join the United Nations Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Tourism Ministry said it hopes the Palestinian campaign will open access to the Dead Sea and "allow for Palestinians to invest in tourism and use of its natural resources in the panoramic and historical site."
But, never forgetting politics, Tourism Minister Daibes warned that the PA would withdraw from the bid if Israel used it to endorse Jewish settlements in land acquired in the 1967 war.
"Dead Sea's 7 Wonders Bid Spurs Politics and Patriotism"