Selling Tzaddikim and Bike Trips in the Galilee

The tombs of tzaddikim (religious figures deemed "righteous") scattered across the Upper Galilee will soon rank as the top destination for visitors from Israel and abroad seeking good health, spiritual strength, even a marriage partner. That, at least, is the vision of developers promoting a plan to market the northern region as a center of spiritual and recreational tourism.

A joint development program drafted by the Jewish National Fund, the Galilee Development Authority and the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee seeks to make the tombs the centerpiece of a project called "In the paths of tzaddikim." Developers said the program was aimed not only at the religiously observant, but rather at the general Israeli public as well as foreign tourists.

Under the plan, the region bounded by Hatzor Haglilit, Safed, Merom Hagalil and Jish (Gush Halav) would be designated as a "holistic-spiritual" area. In addition to visits to the tombs, visitors would be offered bicycle and walking trips, rustic lodging and lessons on the history and folklore of the region.

"This project heralds change," the northern regional director of the JNF, Omri Boneh, said. "The project will launch a series of attractions while supporting the existing destinations, creating an incentive for the private sector to join initiatives in the area."

Authorities estimate that the graves of the tzaddikim across the Galilee receive 10 million visits a year, a figure they believe could bring untold economic benefits to the area, still struggling to mend the physical damage and social unrest caused by the Second Lebanon War of 2006.

One attraction already experiencing significant growth in tourism is the Biriya Forest, near Safed. It contains the rustic Bayit Bagalil hotel, which is planning to double its number of guest rooms.

Likewise, Emek Tchelet, also on the outskirts of Safed, has received NIS 6 million to restore ancient springs, terraces and footpaths, and to create a habitat for wild animals native to the region such as fallow deer and gazelles. The site will open to the public in six months.

"The tombs of the tzaddikim are no longer visited only because of their religious significance. Today there are also elements of mysticism and kabbala" that drawing visitors, Boneh said. "More and more secular people are visiting the tombs, and our goal is to combine those visits with attractions promoting tradition, nature, archaeological sites and more." We are trying to make visits here even richer. Unfortunately, today people come to visit and then return home. It's sad - once Safed was a leading tourism destination in Israel. We want to restore its former glory, so that people come to stay at a hotel in Safed or at a bed-and-breakfast in the region," he said.

Developers said they hoped a family visiting the tomb of Yonatan Ben-Uziel in Biriya Forest (the tomb is commonly visited by parents seeking a mate for a child) would then continue to an area moshav for lunch, followed by a tour of a vineyard or an olive press.

In addition to the economic push the project is expected to give the area, Boneh said he anticipates an improvement in the region's "self-image."

"The municipality of Safed and those of the surrounding communities are in the middle socioeconomic stratum. We believe that the communities will contribute to the project, and in turn their own pride will be strengthened," Boneh said.

The director of the Galilee Development Authority, Moshe Davidovich, added, "The project represents a turning point for the Galilee, with its emphasis on the religious and mystical, and by serving the needs of visitors from Israel and abroad." The planned attractions, he said, "will bring socioeconomic strength to Galilee residents, whatever community they belong to."