The Old City of Acre, one of the world’s oldest port cities, is a rich, colorful jewel. But while its monumental buildings, including the Crusader fortress and Turkish baths, have been restored and now attract visitors, much remains to be done in order to bring Israeli and foreign tourists to linger and to stay overnight. The big question is how to attract tourism without forcing out the quarter’s current residents.
The Old City’s 5,000 residents are Arabs, as is a third of the city’s population of 47,000. While those who could afford to leave the Old City have moved to newer, more spacious neighborhoods, the homes of the ancient quarter are now the key to its becoming a destination. Tourists want to sleep in a stone house that overlooks the sea, with arches from the Ottoman period and Crusader remains.
There are many tourism projects, but the Old City’s Arab residents are still feeling their way to the tourism map. Most of the new hotels and other tourist-focused businesses are owned and operated by Jews who are not native to the city. The greatest nightmare is that in 10 years, Acre’s Old City will resemble Jaffa’s renovated and largely deserted Old City.
In Jaffa, 100 kilometers to the south on the Mediterranean coast, things were done very differently. Since the 1960s, there hasn’t been a single Arab resident in Old Jaffa. The residents of the old quarter above the port were evicted in 1968 and the quarter was “restored” as a quarter for artists and galleries. Fifty years later, Old Jaffa looks like the nightmare of anyone who holds Acre dear.
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Maryam Ayek shows me her house with great pride. She has reason to be proud. Centuries old, it features huge rooms with high ceilings, some of them with paintings. The high stone walls, some of them deliberately exposed, and the blue wooden window frames create a pleasant atmosphere. From the balcony you can see the roofs of the Old City and the bay. We drink espresso as she explains her plan to turn four rooms into guest rooms.
In 2001 Old Acre was declared a World Heritage Site and joined the prestigious United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization list. The northern coastal city was the first place in Israel to achieve such recognition. Expectations at the time were sky high. Seventeen years have passed, Israel recently announced its pullout from UNESCO, but Acre seems to be starting only now to harvest the fruits.
According to the Acre Development Authority, the city had 2 million visitors last year, up 30 percent from 2016. The Tourism Ministry says that in 2017 about 500,000 foreign tourists visited Acre. Most of them did not stay overnight there.
All of Old Acre was declared an antiquities site. This means that the Antiquities Law applies to all its buildings. The collapse last week of a wall in a restaurant near port is a painful reminder of the complexity of the situation: a centuries-old World Heritage Site, much of it poorly maintained and with business operated by individuals and a holdge-podge of city and state agencies.
Following the UNESCO declaration the government decided to rehabilitate the homes in part of the Old City as a pilot project. Everyone agreed that there is tremendous tourist potential. The city includes fantastic assets such as the Knights’ Halls, as well as thousands of residents who live in buildings most of which are crumbling and painfully neglected.
A residential quarter was defined — Bloc 10 — and removed from the administration of Amidar, the public housing company, and transferred to the administration of the Acre Development Corporation. There are 129 buildings in the neighborhood, which is opposite the waterline, in the northwestern corner of the Old City. Of these buildings, 102 were publicly owned, the others were privately owned, or belonged to the Muslim Waqf (religious trust). In almost all the buildings there were protected tenants (who cannot be easily evicted).
Planner Cami Zrihen-Heller, who directs tourism projects, is in charge on behalf of the Old Acre Development Authority for the rehabilitation of the buildings in Bloc 10. She says that if they want to bring tourists they have to rehabilitate the residential buildings in the city too, and not only the impressive public buildings. The large monuments alone cannot attract tourists, She says that the key is creating mixed uses, and in her opinion the rehabilitation of residential buildings is a crucial element in the experience of a tourist-oriented Old City.
The project headed by Zrihen-Heller focuses on the physical rehabilitation of ancient residential structures, many of them built on Crusader remains with Ottoman strata. Additional goals are encouraging the protected tenants to purchase the properties from the authorities, and enriching the tourists’ visiting experience. The costs of the rehabilitation are paid for in full by the government, without tenant participation. “At firsts the tenants told me, ‘Aha, it’s UNESCO that’s paying.’ Then they said that Saudi Arabia was paying. It’s hard for the Old City residents to believe that the State of Israel is doing something good for them, but that’s the situation.”
Zrihen-Heller stresses that is the exteriors of the buildings that are being renovated. “We don’t replace the flooring in the bathroom, or the kitchen cabinets, but it’s clear that the properties are undergoing significant improvement. We focus on the skeleton, the façade and the entrances.”
The tour of Old Acre with Zrihen-Heller includes professional explanations about the complexity of rehabilitating ancient kurkar sandstone buildings facing the sea, along with conversations, embraces and endless arguments with local residents, who excitedly praise her involvement or demand that she repair a leak in the balcony for them immediately.
To date the government has spent 27 million shekels ($7.5 million) renovating 74 residential buildings in Old Acre. “Unique conditions were created in Acre,” says Zrihen-Heller. In Ramle, a parallel example in many senses, that doesn’t happen. We realized that it’s impossible to impose a large number of prohibitions on the local population just because it lives on an antiquities site and on the other hand not to help them with renovation. Many of the residents here are elderly, and living on an income stipends. We have to develop the alleyways, enable tourists to meet people and to sleep in local homes.”
To date 117 transactions have been signed in Bloc 10, in which protected tenants purchases the renovated property from the government under convenient terms and became the owners. “At first there were no transactions at all and we didn’t know how to set a price, now everyone is interested and there’s a lively market. Anyone who purchases a property and keeps it wants to develop tourism, bed-and-breakfasts, guest rooms.”
Zrihen-Heller is well aware that the key words are “and keeps it.” Many of those who purchased a property hastened to sell it at a high price to entrepreneurs, most of them Jews, who realized that Acre is now the treasure chest.
Author Ala Hlehel, an Acre resident, published his second book, “Goodbye For Now, Acre” (in Hebrew) about two months ago. The lovely book deals with Napoleon’s attempt to capture Acre, which failed but caused the destruction of large parts of the city during the siege. In a conversation with him this week Hlehel describes the process in Old Acre as gentrification. “It’s not as serious as in Jaffa, but it’s coming back. We’re happy about progress and development, but does that have to come at the expense of removing veteran Arab residents from their homes? How is it possible that the result, once again, is bringing Jewish culture to an Arab city?”
The examples that Hlehel finds threatening are Jaffa, Safed and Ein Hod. The big problem for Acre residents is that prices are rising quickly and the temptation to sell is great. “We still don’t know how to find Arab capital to compete with that. If only that would happen. There’s a small minority in the Old City who won’t sell to Jews because that will lead to the elimination of the Arab population in the city. The majority simply wants to improve their lives and will do what’s good for them.”
Hlehell stresses that he is not pointing here to a “Zionist plot,” but that it’s a matter of capitalism, which gets along well with Zionism and with the desire to push the Arabs away from every corner. The direction, says Hlehel, is clearly the artists’ quarter in Old Jaffa.
As a positive example, Hlehel points to Mo’ness Khoury, an Acre lawyer who owns several properties in the city. He is converting a restored home into a hotel in a rehabilitated house and renovating the adjacent mosque. These are the example that the Acre Development Authority should encourage, in his opinion. “We don’t want to live in a ghetto. We simply want to participate in the momentum.”