The Dead Sea and Lebanon’s Jeita Grotto have made the first shortlist in the global competition to become the New Seven Wonders of Nature. The two Middle Eastern landmarks were listed among the top 14 sites selected by telephone and online voters from around the world. A total of 28 sites are competing, the top 14 of which will be updated each week through 2010.
Sponsored by the New Seven Wonders of Nature Foundation, voters are asked to select sites of extraordinary beauty and ecological significance, which have not been created or significantly altered by humans.
The lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea is shared by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories and famous for being so salty swimmers can float in it with little effort.
The site was almost blocked from the competition earlier this year when bickering between the three entities’ tourism ministries prevented the required cooperation to make the bid.
“When the interest is mutual you can always find a way to solve a problem,” Gura Berger, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism’s coordinator for the New Seven Wonders of Nature campaign told The Media Line. “I think that everyone sees the great opportunity this campaign is giving the area. If we can join together to save the sea than maybe we can find answers to more complicated questions.”
Israel’s Tourism Ministry was celebrating on Wednesday, after extensive efforts to promote the area in the competition, through 14 of its global offices and its multilingual websites.
“We are very happy but there are still two years ahead of us and we need to encourage one billion people around the world to vote for us, so we are trying to keep our heads clear,” Berger said. “Of course winning will encourage tourism but beyond this the Dead Sea is a unique natural treasure and it is vanishing at a rate of at least one meter a year. Our hope is that the added recognition will help us to find a solution to the water crises we are facing.”
Scientists added that in addition to the Dead Sea’s beauty and potential health benefits, the site possesses extraordinary geological significance.
“This is the deepest place in the world,” Oded Navon, professor of geology at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University of Yerushalayim, told The Media Line. “It is 400 meters below sea level, plus another 400 meters of water, plus another 10 kilometers of sediment that provides a recorded history of the last few million years, so it’s really one of the deepest holes in the earth’s crust.”
“It’s also a huge natural health spa,” he said. “Studies have shown the health benefits of the water and the unique climate.”
“On top of that the sea is an area of outstanding beauty with sheer cliffs, monasteries along its edge and unique heritage sites connected to Judaism and early Christianity,” Navon added. “I think all this is quite good for one place.”
Known as the ‘Pearl of Lebanon’, Jeita Grotto is a series of limestone caves through which an underground river passes. Just north of the capital Beirut, the grotto is the only site among the finalists to be made up of rock formations, caves and valleys.
The competition follows a 2007 global vote for the new seven man-made wonders of the world. Over 100 million people voted in the competition. The ancient ruins of Petra, just east of the Dead Sea in Jordan, won the competition, leading to a tripling of tourist visits to the site.
261 sites were nominated for the natural wonders competition.
Among the other 14 finalists announced on Tuesday, were the Grand Canyon, the Amazon River, the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos and Maldives islands, Venezuela’s Angel Falls, Canada’s Bay of Fundy and Halong Bay in Vietnam.
The Bu Tinah shoals, a tiny archipelago of low-lying islands surrounded by coral reefs and sea grass beds off the coast of Abu Dhabi, was thought to be a strong Middle East contender, but did not make the final 14.
Voting in the competition is set to continue through 2010 and hopes to attract votes from over a billion people from around the world. The winners will be announced in 2011.