In February 2020, a major dispute broke out in France over the idea of requiring payment, for the first time in the republic’s history, to enter nature reserves and national parks. The issue was considered taboo and many French people were angered that the matter was even being raised for discussion.
The most common argument was that the idea violated the French spirit, which espouses that spending time in nature is a basic human right – for the rich and poor alike.
The question may be one of principle, but it is also an economic one these days: Who should finance the budget for maintaining nature reserves? Should the taxpayer be entitled to receive nature for free, or does the importance of nature reserves and the need to protect them mean that visitors should be charged directly for entrance?
The debate arose after President Emmanuel Macron declared four new nature reserves, but did not approve the required budget for ongoing maintenance. This was seen as a hint at his intention to enforce entrance fees – and from there the road to fierce public debate was a short one.
Simon Jolivet, an expert in environmental affairs, told French daily Le Monde that “it would not be abnormal to pay for entry to a natural museum, in the same way as you pay your entry to an art museum such as the Louvre. For cultural heritage, entry rights have been in force for 100 years. It was a big controversy at the time, but we don’t really talk about it much today.”
The meaning was clear: nature sites are the equivalent of museums, where nature is preserved for us. There is no difference between “art museums” and “nature museums.”
It made sense to Jolivet to charge entrance fees to national parks, which are funded by France’s Ecology Ministry, which is “one of the ministries that, traditionally, suffer most heavily from any state spending cuts,” he said.
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Opponents, however, say the very placement of a cash register at a site to charge admission to “nature” is absurd.
A one-way trail
In case you haven’t noticed, Israel is not France. For decades, we have charged entrance fees for nature reserves and national parks. We have become so used to it that, often, we don’t even consider it problematic – or that there is any other way.
But why do we need to pay to see the beautiful spring with the pools at Ein Avdat National Park in the Negev? After all, it has been there forever. And why does it seem obvious today that entrance to the beach is free – as well as to Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park and Ariel Sharon Park, and even to the nature reserve in Machtesh Ramon – while you have to pay to hike at the Amud Stream or see the Hatanur Waterfall in the north? And if we do actually need to pay, how much is reasonable? Is nature in Israel cheap or expensive?
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority manages 530 sites on behalf of the state, and entrance fees are charged at 70 of them. These, of course, are the most popular ones: The sources of the Yarkon River, Gan Hashlosha (Sakhne), Hurshat Tal, Ma’ayan Harod (Gideon’s Spring), Caesarea, Masada, the David Stream at Ein Gedi, and the Ashkelon and Palmahim beaches. Over the past year, the sites of Migdal Zedek, Sha’at Hagai and Ein Haniya were added to this list.
New or newly renovated sites will also require payment. The number of sites where entrance fees are charged is constantly rising, and the trail is only one-way (I don’t know of a single case where a park with an entrance fee became free). The most recent example is the spring at Ein Hanatziv in the Beit She’an Valley, which will no longer be free after renovations are completed.
The number of visitors to the popular parks and reserves is very high. For instance, in a single day during the recent Sukkot holiday, the parks authority reported the following figures: Yarkon Tel Afek National Park – 4,000 visitors; Ein Gedi Nature Reserve – 3,800; and Gan Hashlosha – 2,700. All told, some 120,000 people visited the paid sites that day.
During the entire week of Sukkot, about 1 million people visited the nature reserves and parks. Last year, 4,699,421 people hiked or visited the national parks and nature reserves, while in 2019 – before the coronavirus pandemic struck – this number was 7,489,659.
The payment fee to visit Israel’s various nature sites is not uniform. At most reserves and national parks, the entrance fee is 28 shekels ($8.70) for an adult and 14 shekels for a child. At Hurshat Tal, Sakhne and Caesarea, tickets are more expensive: 39 shekels for adults and 24 for a child. At Ein Hemed, they charge 22 shekels for an adult and 9 shekels per child.
The parks authority encourages people to purchase its annual subscription program, which gives free entry to as many sites as you want for the year. A subscription costs 275 shekels for a couple and 396 shekels for a family (two parents and two children), while a couple of retirees would pay 138 shekels.
Is this expensive? The comparison with countries where they also charge entrance fees (detailed below) helps clarify that. However, there are still also many countries – including France, Britain and Germany – where no payment is charged to enter national parks.
In 2019, the park authority’s income totaled 580 million shekels.
About a third of that, 207 million shekels, came from revenues charged to enter sites; 255 million shekels was provided by the government; and 30 million shekels was unused budgets transferred from the previous fiscal year. In 2020, the state was asked to fund a much larger portion of the budget – 80 percent – because the revenues from entrance fees fell significantly due to the pandemic.
Parks authority Director General Shaul Goldstein has previously stated that every site where the operations, including cleanup and lifeguards, costs money, ticket sales must pay for that maintenance. The only alternative is increasing the authority’s funding from the state, he says. Amit Bracha, executive director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, recently said that it is possible to make nature reserves and national parks free and also ensure that funds will be available for their upkeep – whether from the government or other sources.
In the past, it was clear that entrance fees to national parks and nature reserves were charged only in exceptional cases. The law allows for the collection of such fees, but does not obligate it. Even when it is decided to collect fees, the parks authority must hold a public hearing and then make its decision, Bracha says.
Let us pay
The argument over collecting entrance fees is heating up in Israel too – but for different reasons than those presented in France.
Israel is a very densely populated country. The Israeli public loves to hike, and spending time enjoying nature is considered one of the most loved forms of family recreation. This has increased the pressure on nature sites over the last 18 months, when most Israelis have been forced to abandon overseas vacations, with a marked increase in trash, overcrowding and noise at nature sites as a result.
Across the country in recent months, I have heard the French argument play out in reverse: Visitors who sat at sites with free entry said explicitly: “We’re willing to pay so it will be clean. We prefer to pay in order to limit the number of people coming in and it will be less crowded. If there’s no choice – that’s the situation. Of course we want everything to be free, but look what’s going on around us. It’s crazy.”
One possibility that has been almost forgotten but may be worth revisiting is to return to the old situation where the nature reserves and national parks were treated as two separate entities. The “nature” and “parks” authorities were merged decades ago, but maybe the time has come to differentiate between Masada – a national park – and Amud Stream – a nature reserve. The former could charge an entrance fee, while the latter could allow free entry so everyone can enjoy nature.
The main question is how to create a situation in which nature sites that do not charge for entry also remain clean, orderly and well preserved. Israel has over 500 national parks and nature reserves, and only an eighth of them charge for entry. So what happens at the free sites? Declaring a site a nature reserve may protect it from construction and development, but not from vandalism and garbage.
In the past, claims have been made that the parks authority is not investing enough effort in cleaning up its nature reserves where entry is free. Fans of conspiracy theories have said this is intended to encourage the closing off of nature sites and the imposition of entrance fees. The authority’s response is that given its present number of staff, it is unable to provide a similar service at the free sites as the paid ones.
This is one of the most painful problems for Israeli hikers today. The solution cannot come through making more and more nature reserves accessible only to those who pay. Everyone accepts that a solution is needed which combines education mixed with sensible enforcement, but the present reality makes this difficult to do.
Different shades of green
Germany has 16 large national parks that cover a quarter of the large country – the same ratio as in Israel. All have free entrance. But many other countries are in a completely different position.
A detailed list published two years ago in “Parks – the International Journal of Protected Areas and Conservation” cited 62 countries that charge for entrance to their national parks. The average price of a ticket was 36 shekels, similar to the cost charged in Israel. But it is worth looking more carefully at the tables to understand the enormous inequality between countries.
The prices (listed here in dollars) are the daily entrance fees for international tourists. In some cases – in African countries, for example – there are different price bands for locals and foreigners. This issue is less relevant for now, of course, as there are no overseas tourists anyway.
Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, one of the most beautiful nature sites I have ever visited, is an interesting example of flexible entrance prices and large seasonal differences. Demand reaches its peak during the summer – as do the prices. From January through May, a daily ticket for an adult costs only 40 shekels. In June, the price rises to 75 shekels; in July it is 100 shekels and in August 125 shekels. Then the price returns to its lowest level of 40 shekels from September to December.
In other words, during the summer, the price is over three times what it is in the winter – though it is actually a foggy winter visit to Plitvice that I remember better than a summer one.
The managers of popular nature reserves worldwide want to preserve the nature they have been entrusted with and make money. But they also want to flatten the curve: to find a way to have visitors come during the off-season, and to lower the pressure on nature and their own staff – who find it hard to handle the busiest periods.
The price of entry to Israeli sites is fixed for the entire year. Because water sites are in the greatest demand during the hot summer months, it would be logical to set price bands: higher in July and August, lower during the winter months. But this flexible system has never been tried here.
Another possibility, which has been used in nature reserves globally, is to charge a different price on weekdays. The idea is to encourage people to come on the less busy days and to avoid overcrowding on the weekends.
This plan raises a number of problems and objections because, for many people, the possibility of spending time in nature is only available on weekends and they should not be “punished” because they work.
The main effort conducted in Israel over the past two years, which was a clear short-term success, was to flatten the curve during the day. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the sites run by the parks authority have required booking a place in advance for a certain time. The positive result of this was that visitors arrived not just between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M., but also at 8 in the morning and at 3 in the afternoon.
Today, advance reservations apply only to a specific day, without setting a specific time: For example, at the Apollonia National Park in Herzliya, I scheduled a visit for two people between the hours of 8 A.M. and 6 P.M. After all, if we spend only an hour or two there, what’s the point of booking in advance? It’s a shame they stopped this possibility, and as a result the standard overcrowding has returned during afternoon hours.
In any case, right now the American view has reached the heart of the debate in Israel: “If they pay – they observe the rules.”
Are entrance fees at nature sites important to pay the salaries of the park rangers, or do they give the visitor the sense that nature is dear to their heart, because they paid to see it? Maybe that payment can actually help us pass nature on to the coming generations in a state similar to how we received it.