When Dutch-born Hilda Zohar
met her husband, Moshe, on a kibbutz
years ago, it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with, if not only with, the Israeli land.
Eleven years ago, the couple settled on a barren plot in the Negev Desert and planted the first grapes for what would blossom into the Boker Valley Vineyard and Farm. The cold winters and long, hot summers were ideal for red wine production, and the arid climate eliminated the need for pesticides — though it did force them to get creative with sustainable irrigation.
“Two thousand years ago in this area, they were growing grapes already,” Hilda Zohar said in a recent phone interview, as she took a break from harvesting merlot grapes. “We know because they found many archaeological sites in this area.”
Several years ago, the Zohars expanded to include bed-and-breakfast accommodations on the farm: guest lodges, a cabin and a restaurant, all with a magnificent view of the vineyards and olive groves, with which the Zohars produce organic olive oil. “A lot of people don’t want to stay in a hotel,” said Zohar, whose farm features distinctive mud-hut architecture that is chic in a rustic way. “They want to stay in nature. And a lot of people come because of the wines.”
The Boker Vineyard is in the vanguard of a small but fast-growing trend in Israel travel: eco-tourism. It is generally defined as travel that promotes environmental and social sustainability, as well as appreciation for — and increasingly, interaction with — a unique and vulnerable physical environment.
With its Mediterranean coastline, vast deserts, lush green hills and Red Sea resorts, Israel boasts a landscape of stunning diversity and beauty, so eco-tourism might seem a natural draw. But historically — perhaps inevitably — cultural and religious tourism has been the overwhelming emphasis in the world’s only Jewish state. Across the board, promoters of Israeli eco-tourism say their country lags in the field, due to its longtime focus on industrialization, economic growth and political survival.
“Israel is far behind — there’s a far lower level of environmental awareness here,” said Jonathan Gilben. Together with Jonathan Tal, Gilben is co-founder and co-director of GoEco, a volunteer tourism outfit based in Tel Aviv. “Environmental awareness always springs up when the population is financially secure. In Israel you always hear, ‘We haven’t got time to think about the environment.’ But I think we’re beginning to make an impact.”
“Here in Israel, it is really just beginning,” confirmed Michal Wimmer-Luria, who in 2006 founded the non-profit organization Eco & Sustainable Tourism Israel. Wimmer-Luria defines eco-tourism as “responsible travel, sustainable not only for the land but also for the people who live there.
“Some people are focused on energy-saving and water-saving or composting, the physical aspects, and sometimes people are focused more on communities,” added Wimmer-Luria, whose organization is affiliated with the International Ecotourism Society. “In the city, eco-tourism can be a person who restores an ancient house.” Wimmer-Luria’s organization works with more than 50 Israeli lodgings, organic farms, nature centers and recreation resorts, helping them define how they fit into the business, and working to promote their services to clients.
The Israeli government is putting a special focus on “green” travel as well — though some of the eco-tourism operators interviewed complained of little meaningful state support. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has a campaign called “Israel: 100 Years of Green,” an allusion to Israel’s vaunted 20th-century transformation of its once-barren desert landscape into a tree-planting, agriculturally self-sufficient nation. The campaign’s website lists “ways to green your stay,” along with activities such as desert sukkah retreats and kibbutz stays.
Arie Sommer, Israel’s tourism commissioner for North and South America, noted that the first half of 2010 was the best period ever for U.S. travel to Israel since the country’s founding in 1948 — and he attributes a good part of that to the expansion of eco-tourism. “From the new bike share program in Tel Aviv to Ayalon Park, the garbage dump-turned-urban park, and the fact that Israel has the greatest increase in trees per capita than any other country in the world, are just a few indicators of our commitment to green tourism,” said Sommer in an e-mail statement.
And in a sort of Birthright Israel-for-environmentalists, the government and the Jewish Agency for Israel have launched MASA Israel Journey. The program subsidizes Jewish young adults (ages 18 to 30) for a semester or a year in Israel in one of 160 environmentally focused activities — from a master of arts in desert studies degree at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies to an organic farming internship at a kibbutz.
The typical eco-traveler, however, fits a slightly different profile. According to experts, that traveler is more likely to be from Western Europe, as environmental awareness is particularly high in that land of bike riding, recycling water-savers. Americans are well represented, and a surprisingly large percentage of eco-tourists in Israel are non-Jews. Many eco-tourists are on their third or fourth trip to Israel; having already toured the major cities and cultural sites, they are looking for a new way to engage with the land.
So they head for the lush, verdant Upper and Lower Galilee; the eerie, otherworldly landscape of the Dead Sea; and the area around Eilat, which offers year-round desert warmth, the unique marine ecology of the Red Sea, and a strategic position for birdwatchers, as it is a main route for migratory birds.
Interested in connecting with Israel’s natural roots? You can taste clay oven-baked hyssop and medicinal herbs at an “ecological biblical village” atop Mt. Camun. Athletic types gather at the Hooha Cyclists’ House, a bed-and-breakfast in bike country, or ride horses in the citrus groves of the Vered HaGalil farm, both in the Galilee.
Or you can get pampered with a Dead Sea mud massage and eat gourmet vegetarian cuisine from the organic farms at the Hotel Spa Mizpe Hayamim, which overlooks the Golan Heights and the Hermon Mountains.
At the Boker Vineyard, guests come for the convenient mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking trails that criss-cross the Negev. “We are [located] right near some trails,” said Hilda Zohar, “so we’re popular with Israeli city people — the weekend is fully booked all year long.”
In addition to all the organic wineries, goat farms and holistic retreats, Israel boasts a plethora of natural eco-tourism — saltwater lagoons, mountains, underground caves — and historic sites, including the myriad ancient synagogues and mosaics now preserved in natural parks, with carefully controlled tourism to preserve Israel’s cultural patrimony.
One green-travel option growing in popularity is volunteer tourism, in which travelers devote a week, a month or a summer to working on a grass-roots local project. GoEco is a pioneer of this concept in Israel; since its launch five years ago, it has sent hundreds of volunteers all over Israel: they work on coral reef preservation in Eilat, help maintain wildlife reserves in the desert, pick fruit at vineyards and kibbutzim, and help build lodges on Mt. Hermon.
“People are looking for unique experiences,” said the organization’s co-founder and co-director Gilben, who also sends Israelis on volunteer missions abroad, where they serve as cultural “ambassadors” in a two-way exchange.
Perhaps to an even greater degree than the typical environmentally conscious traveler, Gilben said, volunteer tourists are looking for an alternative to standard travel — a hands-on engagement with the land and its people, rather than a passive viewing, and a practical application of “tikkun olam.”
Both in their early 30s, ambitious and well traveled, Gilben and his business partner, Tal, had studied geography and the environment; they started GoEco to put their studies into practice. Their first volunteer project, in the summer of 2006, was at the Israeli Sea Turtle Rescue Centre in Michmoret on the Mediterranean. Since then, they have expanded all over the globe, though Israel remains an important focus.
“Anyone can join,” said Gilben. He cited various programs’ affordability: an average of $300 for a two-to-eight-week project, including accommodation with host families or in lodges. “We have a lot of gap-year people in their 20s, a lot of 50-plus, people between jobs.”
GoEco will accommodate families with children as well, assigning youngsters to tasks they will find meaningful and fun: berry picking, painting, mud building. “It’s a great bonding experience,” Gilben noted — a way for parents to introduce service by both example and immersion.
For the less rustically inclined, GoEco also has social sustainability projects, such as one in the old city of Nazareth, where volunteers work with a team of Arabs and Jews in an eco-inn. “It’s a very strong cultural exchange,” Gilben said. “All of the programs bring people into close contact with the local community. And you’re not just an American being with other Americans. You’re with Brazilians, Germans and Australians, Jewish and non-Jewish people.
“It’s beautiful,” Gilben added. “We want everyone to come and experience and appreciate Israel for its natural and cultural beauty.”