The Bible and Bird-watching: How Israel’s Periphery Can Start to Draw More Tourists

A five-year plan aims to leverage the considerable tourism assets of Galilee, Negev and West Bank. Program homes in on Israel’s unrealized potential from hosting conventions, exhibitions

Tens of thousands of storks gather in the Hula Valley, June 3, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

The strategic plan for encouraging economic growth in outlying parts of the country – the West Bank, the north and the Negev – called for each of these regions to develop their own brand of tourism. For the West Bank it is the events of the Bible, for the northern Galilee medicine and nature, and for the south the desert and the resort town of Eilat.

The program was developed by Prof. Michael Porter of Harvard University, together with the Kohelet Forum think tank and Knesset member Nir Barkat (Likud), with the aim of making these areas more attractive to business, investors and residents over the next 30 years and help disperse Israel’s population out of the center of the country.

“According to forecasts, by the time Israel is marking its 100th anniversary, its population will be double – 17 million citizens. The growing congestion in the center of the country could lead to the collapse of all the State of Israel into Gush Dan [the country's central cities, including Tel Aviv] while Israel’s peripheries remain weak,” Michal Shalem, the CEO of the organization Israel Grows that helped design the program, told The Marker.

To develop the program, a team met with mayors and other officials from the area with the aim of leveraging assets, in particular in tourism. In the Jordan Valley town of Beit She'an, for instance, they meet with Mayor Jackie Levy to explore developing tourism packages centered on its Roman ruins. In Safed the focus was on festivals and medical tourism based on its hospital and new medical school.

“Prof. Porter is the father of city and regional competitive advantage in the world,” said Shalem. His 18 books include “Competitive Advantage of Nations” and he did work for the city of Jerusalem when Barkat was mayor.

“The idea is to research a certain area, using a very systematic methodology, and investigate what are its advantages, the economic factors that characterize it and identify business clusters with potential to grow GDP and the number of workplaces,” she explained.

The program homes in on Israel’s unrealized potential from hosting conventions and exhibitions. The north, in particular, could draw international conventions because its natural beauty can create a relaxed atmosphere. Eilat’s location makes it’s an ideal venue from conference on marine biology while the West Bank can leverage its archeological and historical sites. The idea is for each area to exploits it local assets.

The five-year program to develop local tourism comes with a price tag of 5 billion shekels ($1.4 billion). About 1.5 billion will come from the government, 500,000 from local authority and the rest from the private sector. The most conservative forecast estimates that investment could generate 25 billion shekels in economic activity over five years and 100,000 jobs. In the best case scenario, it could generate 40 billion for the economy and 160,000 jobs.

In the northern Galilee region the aim is not just to lure tourists to the area but encourages them to stay at local hotels rather than returning at night to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or crossing the border into Jordan, To do that, the program calls for developing multi-day tourism packages that include nature, wineries, religious sites and visits to Druze and Circassian areas.

Then there is bird-watching, where Israel offers considerable attractions as a major stopover in bird migration between Europe and Africa. “There are entire groups that pursue birds in a few select places around the world and we can be one of them,” said Shalem.

Medical tourism is another candidate. “If we look at American health retreats and see where cosmetic surgery and rehab procedures being done in them, we find it’s at rural retreats like we have in the Galilee and the Golan, which produce the calm and give patients the space they need. It shouldn’t be in hospitals,” said Shalem. The region has a big population of para-medical professionals, physiotherapists and nurses.

To boost tourism in the West Bank, the program calls for designing tourism around Bible stories. “When you examine the advantage of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], you realize that this is what can make the difference — this unique place with a huge potential to attract international tourism,” said Shalem.

The program identified 13 sites around which a complete narrative of stories can be developed. It includes the Dotan Valley and the story of Joseph and his brothers; goes to Shiloh, the site of the Tabernacle; Qasr al-Yahud, where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into Canaan; and Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls caves.

Other countries have built tourism around their deserts, but that hasn’t happened in Israel’s south. Only recently did the Tourism Ministry decide that the Negev could be a tourism draw and to develop programs to bring visitors. But Israel has no website dedicated to desert travel.

Relative to many of the world’s deserts, the Israeli desert is very accessible and that’s a significant competitive advantage. It’s not too big; emergency medical services are close by and cellphone reception is good.

The program calls for tourism packages to be designed to last several days and include both desert attractions and other tourism draws and/or a stay in the beachside town of Eilat. It recommends establishment of a desert tourism center in the Negev town of Yeruham to serve as a gateway to the desert and the that alternative places for overnight stays be developed. Desert culture is another attraction.

“Research shows that tourists want innovate travels, and one of the things that is considered to be a major tourist attraction is authentic tourism. … The potential of Bedouin tourism that exists today in small numbers of small groups is far greater,” said Shalem.

Eilat, meanwhile, has failed to fully capitalize on its scuba diving and lacks a major center for the sport.