Acre beach  Yaron Kaminsky
Children on the beach between Acre and Na’aman stream last year. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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For many years now, Acre has been unable to realize its economic and tourism potential even though UNESCO recognized its Old City as a World Heritage Site nine years ago. So the Israel Lands Administration is promoting a plan for a makeover: Draining an area of more than 100 dunams of seawater to create a beach and promenade. Also, a residential area and hotels would go up over an area of more than 1,000 dunams.

But the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel has warned that the plan would damage the coastline and the Old City's ambience. In addition, members of the Israeli committee affiliated with UNESCO have warned that the plan could mean Acre's Old City will lose its status as a World Heritage Site.

The Interior Ministry committee responsible for preserving the country's coastal scenery is due today to discuss the plan for Acre's southern shore drawn up by the lands administration and the Acre municipality. The committee's decision is expected to be key.

At present the shore is totally neglected and shacks have been put up. The area covered by the plan stretches from the Na'aman stream in the south to the walls of the Old City. "This is the most beautiful coast in Israel," according to the documents sent to planning committees. "It must be restored after being destroyed as a result of a faulty development policy."

The lands authority says "the aim of the plan is to strengthen Acre as a tourist attraction." The project also calls for the establishment of a marina at the site of the ancient port.

"This is a megalomaniacal plan whose economic basis is unclear," says Yohanan Darom of the nature protection society. "We're particularly wary of the effect it will have on the unique scenery of the Old City."

He says an alternative plan for developing the coast, drawn up as part of the city's new master plan, should be implemented instead. It speaks of draining the sea less, moving the marina to another site south of the city, preserving the natural habitat around the Na'aman stream and allocating less space for new homes and hotels. "That plan wouldn't dwarf the Old City," he says.

The fears of the Israeli committee affiliated with UNESCO were voiced in a letter sent by its chairman, Prof. Mike Turner, to the Interior Ministry committee. "The draining of the sea will harm the contours of the coastline and the [city's] sensitive balance between sea and land," he wrote. "Expanding the area of the breakwaters so boats can anchor in a marina that will be built way beyond the limits of the ancient port will have a serious impact on the port's contour lines and the fortifications."

Turner also warned that damaging the area this way means Acre could end up losing its status as a World Heritage Site.

For its part, the Israel Lands Administration said "the draining of the sea would not be extensive and it would recreate the coastline in its original form .... This minor drainage would allow the development of a spectacular tourism area that would only strengthen the city as a World Heritage Site."

The Acre municipality said it is prepared to "promote any plan that will help bring tourists to the city and that receives the approval of the authorized bodies."