A major change is underway at Israel’s nature reserves. At the beginning of May, after the coronavirus lockdown, the nature reserves and national parks were reopened, but with visitors required to preregister online in order to avoid crowding. In a year when huge crowds at nature sites have been making headlines, this was a significant decision and a dramatic shift. For the first time, clear quotas were set limiting the number of people that could visit favorite nature sites and the amount of time they could spend there.
At first, the 20 most popular nature reserves were opened – including the Banias, the Yehudiya and the Hula (all in the north) – but before long all 67 nature reserves and national parks that charge admission were opened. With astonishing speed, a process that had been in the works for years was suddenly completed. A goal that had seemed impossible because “We Israelis are spontaneous types who just get up in the morning and decide we’re going to the Banias today” was achieved under the duress of the coronavirus, and despite the skepticism of many.
Four months later, somewhat surprisingly, the system appears to be working. Apparently even the most spontaneous people in the world are capable of planning a trip a few days ahead of time. All the nature reserves with paid admission now also require online preregistration.
After a few weeks, Israelis got used to the change. A lot of people now say they’ve never enjoyed a visit to the nature reserves as much as they have in the past few months. In a summer when the free-admission nature sites in Israel have seen record-breaking crowds, the crowds at the reserves with paid admission have eased. The crush has become tolerable.
In the past, some directors of nature reserves have said despairingly that impossible to block entry to any visitors who show up. It’s hard to keep the gate down when you’re faced with an emotional parent with a car full of crying kids who says they’ve driven a long way and “you can’t just send us home.” Preregistration should solve this problem.
Limiting the number of visitors directly affects our experience of the visit, how much we enjoy it, and it also affects the nature preservation – how many feet trample the grass, how many people enter the waters of the stream or disturb the animals. Now precise numbers can be set as to how much traffic a site can bear.
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Four months after the start of the experiment, the Nature and Parks Authority, which is overseeing this battle, deserves praise. The transition from selling tickets at site box offices to an online system that has made it possible for people to order ahead of time, and to limit the number of visitors, has succeeded. Overall, Israelis were quick to accept the new system. At the start of the summer, people were still showing up at the entrance to sites and were surprised to learn that they had to reserve a place ahead of time, but by now it’s almost second nature. The skeptics were wrong. The public can quickly adjust to such changes when they are made in a logical way. The detractors’ doubts were overblown.
The Nature and Parks Authority is now grappling with the familiar paradox of colliding interests: On the one hand, they want to preserve nature − this is the very reason for the authority’s existence − and therefore they want to reduce the number of visitors. Fewer visitors are better for nature. On the other hand, they have to produce revenue and so they want to sell more tickets. The coronavirus inserted more variables into the equation, as crowding also came to present a health risk and not just something that affects the visitor’s enjoyment. Well, here is a surprising figure that was released this week: In July and August of this year, with restrictions and quotas in place at each site, new records were set for the number of visitors to Israel’s nature reserves.
1.5 million visitors — all Israeli
Given the quotas, one would have expected the figures to be 30 to 50 percent lower than previous years, but in fact visitor numbers were up six percent compared to the same period last year: 1.5 million visitors this year compared to 1.4 million in the summer of 2019. The figure is all the more astounding when you consider that there are no foreign tourists in Israel this year and that in previous years, such tourists accounted for about a third of the visitors to the national parks.
How is this possible? How did we get from the minimalist chart published in early May that said that no more than 150 people would enter the Banias nature reserve - a popular stream at the foot of Mount Hermon - at any one time, or no more than 250 visitors to Nahal Amud to setting new records? How, in the context of the restrictions, did more than 2,000 people a day enter the Banias?
Shaul Goldstein, director of the Nature and Parks Authority, explains: “We learned how to run the reserves in the new situation, especially how to spread the visitors out throughout the day. It was a fast learning process. We noticed that something was happening: One out of three people who reserves a spot doesn’t come to the site. Thirty percent reserve a spot and don’t come or they reserve a spot in several places and only come to one. Of course, this makes for confusion and can be difficult, especially if people don’t inform us that they’re not coming. When we realized that this was the situation, we increased the quotas accordingly, so we’d get to the desired number even if a third don’t show. Initially, we collected payment ahead of time, and then we had to hire workers to deal with the refunds for those who didn’t show up. So we quickly canceled the requirement for payment up front. Now the only requirement is registration.
“We worked efficiently to analyze the number of people that could enter each nature reserve. Each site has a different quota that derives from the nature of the site and what the experience of visiting it involves. We continually updated the quotas. Every week we do an update after thoroughly analyzing the number of visitors, the extent of crowding and the number of cancellations.”
Goldstein says the biggest advantage of the change is that it enables the sites to spread out the visitors over the course of the day. Originally, visitors were given a two-hour slot in which to visit a site. Later, this was changed and now visitors are only assigned an entry time. They can stay as long as they want, until closing time. Goldstein says this makes it possible to avoid having a big crush of visitors between 10:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. as used to be common. Now many more people come at eight in the morning or later in the afternoon. Opening hours are also being extended, especially during the summer months.
As to how much traffic a site can bear, Goldstein says, “Scientists don’t have a precise measurement for this. Ultimately, it correlates with our ability to remove garbage from the site.”
Regulating the flow
Managers of various Nature and Parks Authority sites seem quite pleased with the new system, which affords them greater control. Ofer Shenar, director of the Banias nature reserve, says: “July and August are usually weak months in the Banias because there are no wading pools here and no place to barbecue. This year is different. We’ve just finished our busiest August ever. We had 10,000 more visitors here this summer than last year. Our busiest months are usually April-May and October-November. That’s when we usually have lots of tourists and also school groups. This year we have only Israeli visitors and not the same types of groups.”
The Banias is a site where it’s not easy to regulate crowds. Everyone wants to see the waterfall and the observation terrace is not very big. The initial quota allowed for just 150 visitors at any one time during visiting hours. But adjustments were made and Shenar says that in late August the site had 2,000 visitors a day. Rather than being used for limited time slots, the quota applies to the whole day. To the casual observer, it’s not easy to say whether this is a clever way to get around the visitor quotas and increase ticket sales, or a useful way to regulate the flow of visitors to the site.
Shenar says that in most days in August they didn’t reach the full quota. At first they didn’t permit entry to people who hadn’t registered ahead of time. Eventually they learned to regulate the flow according to the situation at the site, and if it were possible, they did grant entry to spontaneous visitors.
David Greenbaum, manager of the Ein Gedi nature reserve, an oasis in the Judean desert, sees many advantages to the system of reserving place in advance. The main problem, he says, is dealing with the 30 percent or so who cancel or don’t show up.
“We learned quickly,” he says. “We saw that the crowding at the site was at the entrances and not on the paths inside the reserves. So we chose to manage the entrances better and not to limit the amount of time per visit. The main pressure is between 10:00 A.M. and 1:00 P.M. We’ve just had an unusually busy month because August isn’t a time when people like to hike in the Judean Desert, but since we resumed operations in May we’ve had 140,000 visitors. That’s an incredible number, considering that usually half of our visitors are foreign tourists and now it’s just Israelis. In a normal year, we had a million visitors at Ein Gedi and 750,000 at nearby Masada. This year the numbers are similar – without tourists. We’ll have to rethink everything when the tourists return.”
Dr. Lior Chen, director of the Nature and Parks Authority social research department, conducted a survey at the end of May to gauge public satisfaction with the new reservation and visiting system. Of the 5,500 visitors who took part in the survey, 94 percent said they were very satisfied with their visit to the various sites. Seventy one percent were satisfied with the amount of time allotted to them, while 77 percent said they were frustrated that other visitors didn’t adhere enough to the social distancing rules, and especially to wearing masks. At sites where the main activity is a hike (such as the Yehudiya in the Golan Heights) or sites like the caves at Beit Guvrin, where the attractions include multiple areas, visitors were less satisfied with having a time limit for the visit.
In light of the survey’s findings, the authority decided to shift from hourly quotas to daily quotas. Chen says it’s hard to quantify just how much traffic a nature reserve can bear. “We’re talking mainly about the social aspect. It’s impossible to put a finger on the moment that nature begins to be harmed. But we can say for certain that angry visitors cause more harm. When the people are more relaxed, nature benefits too.”
All of the people interviewed agree that the reservation system should continue even after the coronavirus restrictions are lifted, though they aren’t yet certain how it will work then. The situation now is quite straightforward – there are no tourists and no school field trips. When these two things are put back into the equation, it will become much trickier. “The kind of quotas we’re using now are suitable for individual visitors, not for groups,” says Shenar. “In a normal October, six busloads of tourists arrive in the morning. Up to now, they didn’t coordinate anything in advance. Integrating groups and individuals, and tourists and Israelis will obviously be complicated. Right now I still don’t know how it will work.”
Greenbaum muses aloud that there may be no choice but to separate groups from individual visitors, and also to separate the hiking routes. “We’ll come up with an independent system for Ein Gedi with a separate plan for visitor quotas on each route. This will help the hikers and will be great for nature preservation too. We’ll avoid bringing in a large mass of visitors and we’ll scatter them throughout the day. It may sound complicated but in the past I never dreamed that Israeli hikers would coordinate a visit to Nahal Arugot three weeks in advance – and the fact is it’s happening.”
The rules regarding masks and social distancing also apply during hikes in nature reserves and are enforceable by the authority’s inspectors. However, there have been no known infections from hiking in nature reserves. A Nature and Parks Authority spokesperson says that three of its inspectors were infected, all from other family members, and one of these infections was during the first wave.
And what’s happening in Yosemite?
America has been grappling with similar problems for some time now. Calls to limit the number of visitors to popular national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion have been growing by the year. If we want these parks to be here for a hundred years to come, we have to limit the number of visitors, say the park directors. They note that 332 million people visited America’s national parks last year – more than the number of people who went to Disneyland, Disneyworld, baseball, basketball and football games combined.
An oft-repeated phrase from the people I spoke with this week from the Nature and Parks Authority was, “we flattened the curve,” meaning the system of advance reservations enabled them to avoid having a crush of people at peak hours. Perhaps, as in America, the time has also come here to think about “flattening the curve” in other ways – for example by offering discounted admission fees midweek and higher prices on weekends, to encourage more visitors to come on “off” days. Another possibility is to charge more at highly popular sites like the Gan HaShlosha (warm springs also known as Sahne) so as to encourage people to try other, less expensive sites.
Another avenue worth proposing to the Nature and Parks Authority would require a more dramatic shift in thinking. Rather than boasting of record numbers of visitors, the authority ought to aspire to lower numbers. Breaking visitor records isn’t good for anyone – neither the visitors who suffer from overcrowding nor the natural environment which suffers from the strain. Ticket sales are not the most important goal here. If the number of visitors declines, so will the authority’s revenue, but its objectives in safeguarding nature will be achieved. At a time when the popular demand is to open all the nature sites up to everyone, we need to remember that besides hikers who want to enjoy what nature has to offer, nature itself must be protected.