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Israel Tourism Revisited

November 24, 2008
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In 2008, Israel could see close to 3 million visitors coming to this incredibly diverse land, a new record according to Oren Drori, deputy director general and head of marketing administration for the Ministry of Tourism. And, more guests are focusing on additional aspects beyond traditional Holy Land tourism. Drori credits the conditions, such as the calmer and less violent geopolitical climate, as one reason Israel is broadening its tourism appeal, in addition to marketing efforts as part of a “mixture” of reasons for the wider audience.

On the Israel Tourism Ministry Web site, for example, there are a number of different vacation options that aren’t based around the religious pilgrimages that typically come to mind when considering a visit to Israel. While they aren’t taking those classic tourists for granted and are continuing marketing efforts toward them, and even expanding that work, and understand that their position as the Holy Land is “precious,” Drori said they are trying to portray Israel to certain markets as “a regular, legit tourism destination, and not necessarily under the segmentation of being ‘only’ the Holy Land.” Here are some of the options and vacation ideas that are making Israel a must-see location for a whole host of reasons.

Adventure Tourism

For a country the size of the US state of New Jersey, Israel has the desert, the mountains, and the beach, all within a relatively short driving distance. That allows for a variety of physical, outdoor activities that can add adventure to a vacation or even be one in and of itself. To the north, in the Golan Heights area, Drori mentions options such as horseback riding and jeep rides. During the winter, Mount Hermon offers skiing. And while John the Baptist probably never thought about it, you can kayak down the Jordan River. In addition, the 16,500-acre (6,677-hectare) Yehudiya Forest Nature Reserve in the heart of the Golan Heights offers rivers and waterfalls to hikers.

Going south is the ancient mountain-desert fortress of Masada, rising 1,300 feet (400 meters) above the Dead Sea. A long switchback trail leads to the top, where energetic tourists can be rewarded for the hike with a majestic desert view and a chance at exploring the ancient palace/fortress that once offered services to both King Herod and, later, Jewish rebels against Rome. Nearby, hikers can journey through the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, where David once hid from King Saul, complete with rocky, mountainous hiking trails, picturesque mini-oasis spots and a waterfall.

Also in the Negev Desert is the Makhtesh Ramon Crater, which according to the Israel Tourism Ministry Web site, is one of three unique water-erosion craters found only in Israel, and which allows people to gaze back centuries into the geological past, including what the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority Web site calls a stone wall “studded” with snail-like fossils. The crater has trails that can be hiked. Drori said the desert has a combination of a “lot of history,” including the geology in the craters, “which is really no less impressive than the Grand Canyon.” At the bottom of the country, is Eilat on the Red Sea, which boasts snorkeling among coral reefs and fish in clear-blue waters and swimming with dolphins.

Animal-lovers Tourism

Sitting on the Red Sea and on the land bridge between Europe, Africa, and Asia has populated Israel with a variety of interesting animal and sea life. To the south at the northern end of the Red Sea, the underwater observatory in Eilat allows visitors a chance to see colorful fish and coral up close. But Israel offers more to animal-lovers than just its impressive oceanic life.

One animal-related activity that a tourist can participate in is bird-watching. Drori said bird-watching is perhaps one of the “most surprising” motives for tourism. Pointing out the central location of Israel to bird migration paths from Europe and Russia to Africa, Drori said mainly during the months of October–November and March–April, “flocks of birds” come across the Jewish state, ranging from northern Israel to Eilat. In addition, up in the north is the 177-square kilometer (68-square mile) Hula Valley Nature Reserve. The Israeli Tourism Ministry Web site says the reserve has “lovely walking trails” and observation points to watch the birdlife. In addition, the reserve also has a multimedia display, known as the Oforia, which “tells the story of the migratory route across the region and the millions of birds that use it.”

Surprisingly, the tourist site that has attracted the most paying-for-admission visitors for three years in a row, according to the Dun and Bradstreet ranking, is the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo,bringing in almost 700,000 visitors in 2007 alone. The zoo is home to a variety of animals, some of which historically once roamed the Land of Israel and can be found in biblical writings, such as Job and Psalms. According to Sigalit Hertz, marketing and public relations manager for the zoo, among the biblical animals there are the very rare Asian lions, the Syrian brown bear, the Griffon Vulture, the Fallow Deer, the Nile Crocodile, and the oryx. Some of their most popular exhibits, according to Hertz, are the huge Tiger Exhibit, the Penguin Exhibit, the Underground World Exhibit, and their lions and elephants. “People love our elephant training shows,” said Hertz.

The zoo is also adding more of a good thing, eventually expanding by about 30 acres (12.14 hectares). Though plans are still in process, said Hertz, the expansion will probably include a large aquarium with lots of water exhibits. Aside from the animals, the zoo includes a Noah’s ark visitors center, which adds to the zoo’s biblical atmosphere. Yet, Hertz feels there is a different attraction to the zoo that is the reason behind their high attendance figures. “The fact that makes us so popular,” said Hertz, “is that we are a green and beautiful site in the middle of Jerusalem, a place where all the people of the city―Jews, Arabs, religious, secular kids and adults―feel very free to come, one of the only places where you could see them all together.”

Also, to see some biblical animals in the wild, visit the 3,000-acre (1,214-hectare) Yotvata Hai-Bar (Wildlife Preserve) Nature Reserve, which, according to the Israel Tourism Ministry Web site, offers a “safari-like drive through the park where biblical animals are being fostered.”

Cultural Tourism

Israel’s rich Christian and Jewish heritage and holy sites sometimes obscure the concoction of cultures that have called Israel home. For example, in the south, the Bedouin community offers a view into a very unique desert community that presents a modern version of their lifestyle that has existed for millennia. Those who book in advance can visit Kfar Hanokdim, a site that, according to its Web site, has colorful Bedouin tents to stay in, camel rides, and opportunities to try Bedouin meals. Another ethnic group, which also lives in Israel and whose more famous home is next to Turkey, is the Armenians. In Jerusalem’s Old City, the Armenian Quarter has preserved a unique culture and history, complete with old churches, ethnic food, restaurants, and art.

Aside from different ethnic groups, Israel boasts the Israel Symphony Orchestra, not to mention a variety of theatrical and film opportunities and concerts from music groups arriving from all over the world. Tel Aviv also has the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Up north, in the Golan, one can visit and get a guided tour of a replicated olive press in Katzrin and the Golan Olive Oil Mill. Travel to the Kfar Omanim artist village that offers art on display and for sale in an environment decorated with a variety of colors and sculpture. Another extensive, yet quaint, artist village can be found in Safed (or Tzfat), where tourists can visit with the artisans.

Historical Tourism

Israelis a nation defined by “old meets new.” Modern Jerusalem includes the Old City. State-of-the-art Dead Sea spas sit below ancient Masada. But not all of Israel’s history is as well known. The city of Acre (or Akko, Acco), for example, has existed for centuries, from biblical times to today. At one point a Crusader city, Acre boasts ancient building remains of the Crusader town, as well as historic sites more recent. Among the sites to visit in Acre are the Knights’ Halls, which Drori said is “almost a complete city dug beneath the old city of today.” Beit She’an, 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of the Sea of Galilee, also sits atop the ancient city of the same name. The tourism Web site lists a bathhouse, a Roman theater and a main street from the Byzantine era, all in Beit She’an.

A southern location that captures some of the flavor of Israel’s past is the Nabataean city of Avdat, in the Negev. A key point on the ancient Incense Route between Petra in modern-day Jordan and Gaza, Avdat is a UNESCO World Heritage site and national park that has a Roman bathhouse, a Roman tower and a Byzantine winepress.

On the coast, the port city of Caesarea includes a reconstructed Roman amphitheatre that still hosts concerts. Caesarea includes other ancient building remains, including the hippodrome used for chariot races. Numerous sculptures and pillar remains are featured in the national park site. Even the very modern city of Tel Aviv has a historic aspect, including the White City, the early section of the town. Tel Aviv is nearing 100 years of existence, so while it may be new in Israeli terms, it is still historic. The White City is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Right next to Tel Aviv is one of the oldest cities in the world, the ancient port city of Jaffa (or Joppa).

While none of these tourist sites are new, Israel is spotlighting all these less traditional options. And, they can! Israel is a wonderfully diverse country with appealing interests for anyone.


Photo Credit: Photo: Johan Schutte

Photo Credit: Photo: www.israelimages.com

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