A Quiet Revolution in the Sea of Galilee Could Change the Way Israelis Vacation

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Israelis in the Sea of Galilee's Tzemach Beach, which is in the midst of being reopened to the public after having been closed for three years.
A Quiet Place: Israelis in the Sea of Galilee's Tzemach Beach, which is in the midst of being reopened to the public after having been closed for three years.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Silence can be thunderous. At Duga Beach, which reopened in August after several years of development work, the quiet was as pronounced as the late summer heat and the storms to follow it. Even though some thousand people lined the beach, which is located on the northeast shore of Lake Kinneret, it was tranquil and clean. That’s not something to be taken lightly or for granted. The family atmosphere that pervaded was pleasant. Little children ran about, darting between the trees. Hundreds of adults sat in folding chairs, talking amongst themselves. Many of them smiled. Colorful bathing suits dotted the landscape. Some played backgammon. One family played Scrabble. A woman arranged letter tiles to spell out “pandemonium,” garnering a sea of points.

All of the lake’s beaches, Duga included, have long histories, storied pasts that dictate expectations, rising up and casting long shadows on perception. For years, its beaches were wracked by neglect, litter, loud music, violence and vandalism, by private and public bodies, each taking various parts of the beach over for themselves.

The revolution kicked off two years ago, when some of the beaches were designated as quiet zones. Suddenly, it became clear that things could be different, that one could sit by this beautiful lake in quiet and enjoy peace. It hasn’t happened everywhere or all at once, but change has come to the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Skeptics said then, as some say even now, that there’s no such thing as a peaceful family outing on the Kinneret, the Hebrew name for the lake. That’s not true. At the end of August, on one of the hottest and most crowded days of the year, the beach was pleasant. Hundreds of people basked in the cool waters, lingering there, immersed from the waist down. We found a shady spot of our own with relative ease and soon we too were lapping it up, emitting sighs of pleasure and relief.

'At Tzemach, we recently completed a giant project, that includes a fantastic park.'Credit: Gil Eliahu

The time has come to see Kinneret’s beaches differently, especially those along its eastern shores where the biggest changes have taken place. The reopening of Duga Beach marks the third phase of the lake’s transformation. The first was the formation of the Kinneret Cities Association, a public corporation that manages 17 beaches around the lake. The second was the designation of quiet zones accompanied by a concerted enforcement effort. This past year, two more beaches came under the association’s management: the iconic Tzemach Beach, which is in the midst of being reopened to the public after having been closed for three years, and Sussita Beach, which had previously been managed by Kibbutz Ein Gev and following the transfer of its management to the association, closed for rehabilitation for a year.

Now the decisive phase of the revolution has arrived: Duga is the first beach to have been planned in accordance with the association’s comprehensive plan for the beaches, Master Plan 13/13A. The plan aims to develop tourism and make beaches more accessible to the public, all the while preserving nature, the environment and heritage. The plan relates to 15 of the 17 beaches as well as segments of the Kinneret Trail. The Tourism, Finance and Interior Ministries, the association and its operating arm (the Kinneret Drainage and Streams Authority) have invested 30 million shekels ($9.3 million) – a huge sum for a single shoreline.

Duga Beach is spread out over about 125 acres. It includes a designated swimming area, sports and games facilities, restrooms and changing rooms, and is fully accessible to people with disabilities. Entrance is free, but parking is not. That said, the cost of parking is the lowest allowed by the association: 5.90 shekels an hour. The beach is designed with two kinds of visitors in mind. There are daily beachgoers, like us, who come for a few hours to spread out mats, open folding chairs and swim in the lake. Then there are those who come to linger for several days at a time. At Duga, this second group is quite large. As part of its transformation, the beach was organized into five sections – parking and trailer sites in the back, a sports and recreation area, a dedicated campground, the part of the circuit trail that cuts through it, and last but not least, the bathing beach itself.

For camping lovers, the shores of the Kinneret are an important refuge and something of an anomaly; Israel has banned camping on almost every beach along the Mediterranean Sea. On the northeast shore of the Kinneret, there are still large open spaces, big eucalyptus groves, and little construction, with most residential communities a way’s back from the shoreline. What’s more, it’s the only place in Israel with a tradition of camping that goes back many years.

The new park by the Tzemach beach, the Sea of Galilee.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The moment of truth has arrived. Whether the Kinneret emerges as a coveted vacation destination will depend on the success (or one shudders to think, failure) of Duga Beach and others like it. It will also depend on whether and to what extent decades-old obstacles hindering the construction of a Kinneret Trail abutting the lake will fall by the wayside.

An air-conditioned tent camp

At the upgraded Duga Beach, overnight visitors may choose among several accommodation options billed as “the first mix of its kind in the Kinneret”: bring your own tent, sleep in an air-conditioned one or connect a trailer to electricity.

The simplest of the three options is to pitch a tent in the open area, most of which is generously shaded by many tall eucalyptus trees. The restrooms and showers are clean, but unfortunately there aren’t enough of them.

The second option is to stay in one of roughly 40 air-conditioned tents, each replete with four mattresses, but no bed frames. Outside the tents are basic garden tables and chairs, as well as outdoor refrigerators, to be shared by every two tents. The air-conditioned tents are just 50 meters (about 55 yards) from the shore.

Maagan Ein Gev in the Sea of Galilee.Credit: Gil Eliahu

It looks nice and a woman staying in one of them smiles at us politely and tells us it’s great, but there are two issues. First, the area is too crowded. The tents are spacious but incredibly close together, too close for comfort, and closer even than the similarly-sized albeit not air-conditioned tents we slept in during basic training in the Israeli army. The sense is that Duga is trying to squeeze out a bigger profit by packing in as many campers as possible. The other problem is the price. During the upcoming High Holidays, the two night minimum stay runs 1,600 shekels: Did I mention the communal bathrooms are 40 meters (44 yards) away?

Tents aside, Duga also offers 37 trailer sites with electricity, water, and plumbing fully hooked up. Preparations are also underway for a group tent site that can host up to 12 people each. There’s a restaurant, but it was closed when we visited, as well as a shop that looks like a kiosk, but doesn’t sell coffee. No coffee or even a coffee machine in sight, when I asked where I could score a cup of joe, several staff members shrugged their shoulders and that was that.

Since it opened, Duga has been managed by a group of franchisees, including Shmuel Hazan, who for 10 years ran the tourism arm of the Golan Regional Council, and the entrepreneurs Ilan Efraim and Ofer Zilberman. They generate revenues from the overnight facilities and the restaurant; Entrance to the beach itself is free. Their spending on cleaning, supervision and maintenance must be massive – the success of the whole enterprise rides on it.

Horses enjoying the peace by the Sea of Galilee.Credit: Gil Eliahu

At the opening ceremony, Hazan said: “The three of us have 100 years of experience amongst ourselves, which we’re bringing to Duga Beach, and here we’ll make a beach that brings glory to the State of Israel.” I wish.

How does Duga compare with similar offerings overseas, such as those in the Netherlands and France designed for families with children? Center Parcs Europe and Landal GreenParks, two leading European holiday village chains, come to mind. They too are located in beautiful settings, like lakefronts or riverbanks. But there are notable differences: the space between the tents (in the Netherlands, these are cabins), the quality of the grocers and the activities on offer for families with children. The quiet at Duga, which we in Israel perceive as something of an anomaly, a specialty to be cherished, is standard fare at European holiday villages.

Tse’elon and Sussita

Traveling southbound from Duga along the eastern edge of the Kinnernet on Route 92, you reach Tse’elon Beach after a mere three kilometers. Tse’elon is the next beach due to be upgraded once the requisite funds have been raised. Entering the place feels familiar, like the beaches that surrounded the Kinneret for the last few decades. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s completely unsatisfactory. Welcome to 1980.

The Sea of Galilee's Sussita Beach.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Tse’elon Beach itself is spacious and pleasant. Entry is free, but parking is not. Here too, a eucalyptus grove casts ample shade. But for now, the beach is undeveloped, lacking any amenities. The restrooms are disgraceful and can be improved only by the addition and subsequent detonation of dynamite. There are no canopies, restaurants or cafeterias, and there are certainly no air-conditioned tents. The pieces of wood masquerading as picnic tables would also be well served by a controlled explosion.

In spite of the foregoing, Tse’elon remains “natural.” What does that mean? If you come with your own tent and stake out a remote corner for yourself, a great time is to be had. But this is no resort, and as a last one, you will have no choice but to relieve yourself in another quiet corner. For better and worse, civilization is still 40 years away from Tse’elon. We can only hope for some middle ground to emerge between Tse’elon’s under-developedness and Duga’s over-developedness, one that feels just right.

Sussita Beach of late August seems to fulfill that hope. It has new restrooms and is free of air-conditioned tents and trailer sites. But it’s not without its own problems, largely due to its limited space, far less expansive than Duga or Tse’elon. Big trees line the lakefront and create a pleasant environment, but if you can’t find a good spot, Sussita can be a dispiriting place. Unlike other beaches, stairs lead down to the lake where the official swimming area is very small.

The big picture

Idan Greenbaum, chairman of the Kinneret Cities Association and head of the Emek Hayarden Regional Council, puts the revolution into context. “Duga is the first in a series of upgrades of all the Kinneret beaches. They won’t all look the same. The beaches on the northeast shore of the lake have more land, so we can put trailers there and prepare facilities for overnight stays. If they eventually move Route 92, which straddles the eastern Kinneret, we’ll be able to do the same with the Rotem-Shizef Beach, which right now has no room for development.”

Girls swimming in the Tse’elon Beach.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Is demand still outstripping supply?

“There is a serious shortage of cheap overnight accommodation. Ein Gev has a wonderful holiday village, but a room there costs 2,000 shekels a night. At the luxurious Setai Hotel, a room costs 3,000 shekels a night. We lack quality campgrounds and trailer sites. There is a lot of demand in this space and the appropriate spots are Tse’elon, Duga, Dugit, and Amnon. On the western shore, we’re planning a more urban promenade with cafes, restaurants, and day spots.”

How will future beach development be managed?

“Because there are so many visitors, we can’t close three beaches for two years. We will take one beach at a time and work on it. At Tzemach, we recently completed a giant project, that includes a fantastic park. They’ll do sports and children’s games there – it will be less of a camping beach for families.”

Greenbaum says that the state invests a lot of money in the Kinneret Cities Association – its annual budget is 45 million shekels, and it spends 3 million shekels to operate each of the beaches, which it hopes to franchise. Reduced maintenance costs could enable development funding.

Tents by the Duga Beach. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Tents by the Duga Beach.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Amir Halevi, the director general of the Tourism Ministry, begins his interview with Haaretz by saying he’s embarrassed to say how many times he visited Duga while it was being redeveloped. “We were very much involved with the site, which I believe is very important. The state has invested a lot in it, the Kinneret Cities Association and the Drainage Authority have done great work, and the key to success lies in the basics – restrooms, showers, and maintenance. A site like this is the equivalent of two big hotels in Tiberias. More than 1,000 guests spend time on the water there.

“The idea is to create low-cost respectable overnight accommodation on the Kinneret. We wanted a place that would provide all camping services, especially for families that come with their own tent and pay no more than 100 shekels a night. The most important thing now is to create low-cost accommodations with high quality restroom and shower facilities. The rest depends on visitors to respect the facilities we’ve built, and for the franchisees to maintain them at a high standard.”

Duga Beach can, Halevi says, do a lot to repair the problematic image conjured by the idea of a vacation at the Kinneret. Duga has explicit rules on public behavior and a team that enforces them. The goal is to bring some order to the vacation experience. The state will also have to step up enforcement against unauthorized camping sites, which leave sites littered with diapers and plastic bottles – currently the biggest challenge for officials.

As Halevi sees it, the greatest potential for the new Kinneret lies in attracting foreign tourists during the off-season. Halevi has his sights set on European and American tourists coming with their sleeping bags, for instance, to sleep near the banks of the Kinneret the week after the Passover holiday. “A few days on the shores of the Sea of Galilee is a dream for them,” he says, hinting at the lake’s association for Christians with the life of Jesus.

Children in a tent by the Duga Beach, Sea of Galilee.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The Kinneret Trail

The 60-kilometer trail along the Kinneret’s shoreline is the ring that conjoins the lake’s beaches and a critical element of the move to revolutionize its shores. Designed by Ilan Izan, it was laid out nearly 20 years ago by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel to create a walkway that comes as close as possible to the shoreline without obstacles or unnecessary detours – and all at no cost to visitors. The trails are marked with white-purple-blue posts, but even now, two decades since the initiative began, the trail has yet to be completed, as it is still dogged by disputes over the exact route it’s meant to take.

The trail isn’t only important for hikers. It encapsulates the moral issue of who controls the shoreline. Can we walk around the shores of the lake without local landowners, such as churches, kibbutzim and businesses, getting in our way, by erecting fences and blocking off land? Or if they’re being nice about it, by putting up signs that implore us to “Go around” them by walking out to the main road.

Liron Shapira, coordinator of the northern district for the Society for the Protection of Nature (which is also a member of the Kinneret Cities Association), describes the current situation as follows: “The fact that the trail is included in the national plan is a major achievement for the general public. We have to get to the point where you can hike around the Kinneret along one continuous path, which means all the barriers and unauthorized activity on the shoreline have to be eliminated.”

Shapira recounts bitter struggles that transpired within the committee that determines the trail’s route and is slated to make a final decision about its exact contours in the next few weeks. To him, the committee was overly accommodating of the interests of various groups that control sites along the lake’s northern shoreline (and in particular, churches) at the expense of the Israeli public’s interests.

“At the outset, everyone on the shores of the Kinneret abutting the trail said, ‘Don’t let it pass through me.’ The exception to the rule was Kibbutz Ginosar, which said right from the start ‘You can let it pass through us, and we’ll figure out how best to do it.’”

A trailer park by the Tse’elon Beach, Sea of GalileeCredit: Gil Eliahu

Opponents of the trail during its various planning stages included the holiday villages of the Kibbutzim Maagan, Ein Gev and Ha’on, as well as the kibbutzim themselves for fear they’ll be inundated by visitors barbecuing on their lawns and defecated in their shrubbery. When the Kinneret’s water level was low and the shoreline was relatively far from their homes, it was easier to shrug off these concerns. Now, with the waters at record height and shorelines closer to their homes, the problem has swelled to the point that Greenbaum, the Kinneret Cities Association chairman, wants to move the trail so that residents won’t continue to be disturbed by the current situation, which he says is problematic.

Israel’s Water Authority has also voiced objections to the trail cutting through its land. The Sapir facility in the lake’s northwest corner is where the National Water Carrier begins, and officials have voiced concerns about the potential for hikers to pollute the water. The issue has not yet been resolved. Additional opposition to the trail was voiced by groups hailing from Tiberias and Migdal.

Churches along the Kinneret’s northern shore have mounted the most serious opposition to date, and have all demanded that the trail bypass their sites and instead track the main road further away from the shoreline.

What’s the problem with detours like that?

Tse’elon Beach.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“It’s a matter of principle. There is a national master plan designed to serve all the state’s residents, and there’s no reason for any one person to come with their own narrow interests, say ‘go around me’ and put up a fence. It’s worth remembering that this is only a walking path, with no vehicular access. Most of the trail is very narrow – no more than a meter wide. The minute you surrender to one group, it’s game over. We can’t surrender to interest groups.”

Where have you surrendered?

“From my perspective, the committee chose to fight the weak. It’s easier to fight the kibbutzim and the holiday villages because you know you can win. But the committee threw its hands up when it came to the churches. The churches are powerful bodies and they make use of powerful diplomatic connections and big law firms. It’s been very frustrating for me to see how the committee chose instead to take into consideration the interest of foreign groups. Their public is pilgrims and there’s no reason why the State of Israel should prohibit its own public from crossing the Kinneret’s shores.”

If I take the trail today, where will I encounter those obstacles?

“Right now, you will be forced to bypass the churches on the northern shore of the Kinneret and the Sapir facility. You will also be forced to circumvent certain areas around Migdal, where there’s a new hotel and a church, and the Villa Melchett. At Ha’on and Ein Gev, you can walk along the entire pathway, and Tzemach Beach has reopened now.”

Is the fight coming to an end?

“What do you mean? Fences blocking the trail on the banks of the Kinneret are being erected all the time, even now. It’s an endless battle that won’t end all at once. The ones responsible for taking them down are the Itam unit of the National Parks and Nature Reserves Authority and the Border Police. The work is endless. You can hike around the Kinneret and cross beaches and communities, but almost 30 percent of the path still doesn’t follow the most optimal route.”

A boy overlooking Maagan Ein Gev.Credit: Gil Eliahu

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