Eco-Tourism In Israel

The historical land of Israel is witnessing a boom in eco-tourism, as tourists are flocking to the ancient civilisation to relish its bountiful natural retreats.

Israel – the "Biblical" land of "Milk and Honey" – is witnessing a Eco-Tourism Revolution, as ancient eras come alive for tourists worldwide in their "Israeli Journey through History." Highlighting the fragile yet beautiful desert environment is high on the Israeli Government's agenda, as they showcase ancient civilizations in the midst of wildlife and nature. We were a huge "dhow" filled with tourists that did a small circular tour from the wooden jetty, while divers plumbed the blue depths below its decks.
Agamon-Hula Birdwatching Centre – beside the Golan Heights separating Syria – was where I saw a smaller version of the South American Capybara. Niraspis (Nir), our ranger guide, took us bird-watching and said that around 100,000 migrating Eurasian Cranes come here from Russia/Scandinavia enroute to Sudan and Eastern Africa, besides 300-400 white storks from eastern Europe (swallows, bee-eaters, kingfishers, hoopoes) – and even the Black-headed Bunting from India which was spotted in Mt Hermon nearby – and are in constant flight.
A surprising sight on the canal was the Nutria – a relative of the South American Capybara – which had been brought here earlier for their "pelts" but became pests instead, Nir said, adding that the canal is home to carp, catfish and otters, while the land houses the wild Ass, jackals and wildboar.
Cheese and wine were sampled on our culinary trail while visiting Omer Zeltzer's "Shai Zeltzer Dairy" farm in the Mount Carmel ranges, where 200 'Anglo-Nubian' goats provide milk for cheese. "Goats are seasonal milk-givers and high season is spring, but milk and cheese depends on what the goats eat – as they are picky and eat from different trees in season.
"We had noticed a strange problem here, only female 'Yakmurim' (local elk deer species) were found here, whereas their males were in Syria (enemy territory then). We somehow got the males and bred them successfully," Omer revealed, while treating us to other delightful cheeses like 'Bikurim' Spanish 'Monchego'.
Our visit to an "Oasis" in the Negev desert was fascinating, where desert 'greening' in 90 per cent sunny days (that feed solar panels for electricity) is actually happening through Vines (wine) and Rocks (archaeology), while providing shelter for partridges amidst vines, pomegranate trees, olives, figs, dates and bougainvilla.
This 10-acre Oasis produces three main wines including a Kosher variety and the Desert brand. I tasted the costliest of them, the "Desert Dessert" wine (120 shekels).
Archaeology is a huge attraction here, with ancient weapons made of flintstone being discovered on digs. Nabatean camels were used in caravans here comprising 5,000 camels in each herd. A walkway directs tourists to the mountaintop where brown rocks highlight ancient writings. "They are Cavemen drawings dating to between 2,000 to 4,000 years years ago," said Aviv.
"You are now enroute Africa," said our guide, while driving us along the Great Rift Valley road (which stretches all the way to Africa), before departing the coast and ascending to Mt. Carmel (550 msl), where we saw early 19th century Jewish settlements, which had been the residence of the fabulously wealthy 'Rothschild' Jews, who introduced international banking to USA and the world.
I was curious to see a 'kibbutz' and visited a modern one – the swanky Hagoshrim Kibbutz and Resort Hotel, built on the ruins of the winter palace of Emir Fa'ur, who had ruled the northern Hula Valley since Ottoman times. Facing the 'Golan Heights' and the snowy slopes of Mount Hermon and located in a Nature Reserve filled with springs, rivulets and the Rivers Dan, Hatzbani and Banias, the kibbutz hotel has embraced eco-tourism in greening through nature preservation, alongside recycling, energy-saving measures and environment-friendly systems, while its 204 rooms include the "Koren Stream House" rooms with soothing sounds and views of the flowing Koren stream nearby.
A 'Turkish Hamam' and sauna here offered pampering treatments that eased the muscle kinks from motor travel, but meeting a real-life 'Kibbutnikti' – Hanna Levy – at Hagoshrim was an exciting bonus. Born a Jew in Nazi Germany in 1940, the death of her father prompted her mother to take the family to her native Bolivia. "I was seven-years-old then and didn't like Bolivia. When someone from Israel came here to convince Jewish children to migrate to Israel, I decided to go and – on a choice between living in desert kibbutz or one in Upper Galilee, I chose the desert (Hagoshrim) and fell in love with its mountains, trees, water," she narrated.
Mizpe Ramon, a town in the Central Negev highlands, added colour and wildlife enjoyment to my tour. As we climbed the hill to view the dazzling serpentine view of the crater, a herd of Ibex appeared and one came towards me. As I fumbled in my bag for biscuits, she shrugged her head disdainfully and moved off. Seconds later, a bearded male strode up to me with a mean look, saying 'Don't approach my woman,' and followed her. A Jewish guy, Eli Yahu, while walking beside me, commented humourously, "Good to eat, huh?" and I retorted "I love – but don't eat – wildlife."
Israel has 70 national parks in which mountain goat "Arthzy" is the mascot. We met Dotan Rotem (landscape ecologist in the Israel National Parks Authority), in the World Heritage Site, the Nahal Me'arot Nature Reserve, on the Mt Carmel range.
The Reserve's caves highlight the wonders of ancient history. "The European man or Neanderthal disappeared from earth 60,000 years ago. But here we found remains of both Neanderthals and African man – which proves that these two groups from distant regions had met and perhaps interbred," Rotem said.
Next stop was the famous 'Dead Sea," where resort manager Conny Barghoorn told us Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, King Solomon and Queen of Sheba came to bathe, for its medicinal properties. "Apply the mud for 15 minutes and wash it off," was his advice as we approached.
We also visited the ancient fort castle in Masada situated on a high rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea where legend has it that the famous King Herod of the Bible lived with many wives 2,000 years ago, including one whom he "drowned in a vat of honey". The siege of Masada by troops of the Roman Empire at the end of the First Jewish-Roman War ended in the mass suicide of 960 Jews – the Sicarii rebels and their families hiding there. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of Israel's most popular attractions and draws over a million visitors annually.
We later passed signs stating "Crocodile Farm' and 'Antelope Farm" but sadly, there was not enough time for a visit. We then visited a Biblical Oasis called Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.
"Ein Park Ein Gedi" Oasis hotel and botanical garden was our next destination, where Botanist Mani Gal showed us the fragrant "African Myrrh" of the Frankincense family, that was brought from Ethiopia's deserts and successfully acclimatized in Israel.
Young entrepreneur/environmentalist Yaniv Fieldust showcased us his solar nature centre, explaining the use of waste, including recycling plastic and metal now converted into drip irrigation and solar cooking/lighting systems. He displays his treasure chest in highlighting "sun-towers," "Parabolic mirrors" and windmills, and points out that 'Kibbutz' Samor in South Israel uses parabolic mirrors to produce hot water and electricity.
Our last visit in Israel was a 'desert tourism' experience in a Bedouin desert camp in the heart of the Negev desert, where we experienced the unforgettable native Bedouin hospitality. Bedouins are good story-tellers and Athiya had us rocking with laughter at some humorous ones, as he described his family (11 brothers and 16 sisters), brother's farm, and his massive tents for marriages and other events, besides cabins and bungalows for young couples. I also met Uri Taub from the Israel Ministry of Tourism and he said, "We think Indian tourists would be interested in our leisure and eco-tourism, MICE, Team-building camps in the kibbutzes, Krav Maga (Israeli army's self-defence system), adventure sports and our drip irrigation agri-technology, as India is undergoing a farming evolution."
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