DEAD SEA, Jordan, Aug. 17, 2009 -- Summer in the Holy Land can be high season for hot deals. After the rush of spring and the crush of Easter, some of the region's most popular sites are less crowded and more affordable. If you can stand the heat, that is.
One of the hottest places is the Dead Sea. At 1,340 feet below sea level, nicknamed "the basement of the world," the Dead Sea is naturally hotter than higher-level areas. In summer that can easily mean temperatures up to 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
But it's relatively easy to weather sitting poolside at the Dead Sea's luxury resorts, with the slashed rates and free upgrades that can come with the off-season.
The Movenpick Hotel, the most charming of the lot, is a nicely done replica of a traditional Jordanian village with restaurants and street performers in terra cotta-style courtyards. Summer rates start at $187 including breakfast, compared with the $271 per night during high season in autumn.
The neighboring Kempinski Hotel, an outpost high-luxury chain that boasts the largest spa in the Middle East, is offering a $218 per night summer promotion, a discount from the regular $316.
The less expensive Dead Sea Hotel and Medical Center takes guests at $185, including breakfast, and focuses on delivering the therapeutic effects of the Dead Sea – the Middle East's version of "Taking the Cure." Doctors say the famed salinity of the Dead Sea, along with oxygen-rich air and mineral-rich mud, encourage deep relaxation. They recommend Dead Sea vacations to ease conditions like asthma, cystic fibrosis, arthritis and various skin problems.
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Along the seashore, visitors covered in mud bake in the sun and float in the high-salinity water. Women are especially encouraged to rub mud around their knees and shoulders. Bobbing around in the bouyant water is considered good for digestion, massaging the internal organs.
"When you are floating, the water makes a soft pressure over the skin like a soft massage, improving lymphatic circulation and blood circulation, and the immune system," said Dr. Mohammad Kanan, a physician at the Movenpick, who has spent more than a decade practicing at the Dead Sea. At 29 percent salinity, the water is touted as the saltiest sea in the world.
"The environment here overhauls the body and activates the endocrine system, so that the glands work better and release hormones properly. The lung cells are also more active," he said. Doctors recommend staying at the Dead Sea for at least two weeks, but do say that just three days will provide some medical benefit.
Along Israel's Dead Sea coast, most hotels offer steady rates year-round. The Crowne Plaza, a modern building in Ein Bokek, starts as low as $210 per night. Nearby, the Tsell Harim Hotel is a steady $170 throughout the year. The hotels in Ein Bokek are roughly 12 miles from Masada and about 50 miles from Jericho.
One advantage of the Jordanian side is its westward view, giving glimpses of stunning sunsets over the hills before Jerusalem. The Six Senses Spa in Ma'in has a restaurant on a cliff, overlooking the Dead Sea and distant twinkling lights of Jerusalem. It is offering a special at $243, less than its usual $343 starting Sept. 17.
If the prices still seem high, you can defray costs by couch-surfing with a Bedouin. Cave-dwelling locals in Petra, the majestic red-rose city among the new Seven Wonders of the World, have taken in guests through couchsurfing.org, a global network for free home stays.
"People are all different from each other, and I want to meet different people," Hamad Ammarin, who's hosted 22 visitors in his cave so far, told the Jordan Times.
Suri Fein-Fisher did not couch-surf, but she did bring her family on vacation to Petra in March. She says the trip was worth the extra spending in a downturn.
"I figured we'd better do it early in the recession, as opposed to really waiting for a big hit. It's been totally worth it. If we don't build memories, then all the money we save isn't worth anything," she said, adding that she considered a visit to Petra an extension of a family trip to Israel.
Jordan Keen to Attract Tourists
Jordan relies on tourism as its top source of domestic income and largest private sector employer, heavily promoting its resort destinations on the global stage. The country is relatively expensive for the Middle East, although Jordan's Ministry of Tourism and the semi-private sector Jordan Tourism Board are positioning the country as a niche destination for high-end and faith-based travelers.
When the economic downturn struck, the government flexed its muscle to help keep the sector afloat. With visitors from the U.S. and Europe down 20 percent in the first quarter, Jordan launched a tourism stimulus package curbing sales tax and easing visa requirements for travelers from Asia.
"I'm not scared [of declining traffic]. I think people will be very selective when they select their destination, and I think Jordan is high on that list," said Maha Al Khatib, Jordan's Minister of Tourism.
What government agencies do fear is the Dead Sea's disappearance. In the last 50 years the Dead Sea has split into two separate lakes, losing 33 percent of its surface area, an estimated three feet per year. Among other factors, global warming is accelerating the Dead Sea's evaporation. Jordan and Israel are working on a joint plan to pipe in water from the Red Sea, through the proposed "Red-Dead Canal." Some geologists worry that it would change the Dead Sea's unique composition of salts and minerals.
"Theoretically, enough Red Sea water flowing into the Dead Sea could restore most of its water level over time," said a 2008 assessment of the project by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, "[although] some scientists believe that mixing water from the two seas would lead to algae blooms, causing the Dead Sea to both change color from turquoise to brown and lose its famous buoyancy."
It's all the more reason to visit the Dead Sea now, while you can do it on (relatively) the cheap.