Richard the Lionheart set out from here to conquer the Holy Land. Napoleon also came calling. So did generations of Muslim generals. They left behind a treasure trove of majestic buildings, mysterious tunnels and a fascinating fortress by the sea. But most Israelis haven’t been to Acre since a high school trip to see the infamous prison where the British executed suspected Zionist extremists during the Mandate. Most of Israel’s three million annual tourists have never been here at all.
They are missing out. There are the ancient Turkish baths, today a museum, and a medieval fortress that dates to the time of the Crusades. There’s the shuk, its narrow alleyways redolent of spices and coffee. And of course, there’s the sea, the waves spraying saltwater over the low walls as visitors and locals sit in cafés and watch the calm Mediterranean horizon or take a boat trip around the bay.
According to Ben Mayost of the Economic Company of Acre, about 1.5 million people come to Acre each year, not including Acre’s famous Fringe Theater Festival, which attracts another 300,000 over Sukkot. About 500,000 of these tourists come from outside Israel, staying in Acre’s 450 hotel rooms for a night or two.
If you haven’t been to Acre recently, think again. The Old City has been given a facelift, with all of the doors painted a cheery turquoise.
If you’re looking for a real splurge, there’s The Efendi Hotel, opened in February by Uri Yirmias, better known as Uri Buri, after his famous local fish restaurant.
The luxury hotel took almost a decade to build, and the rooms are stunning – with stucco wall paintings by Italian artists and a huge chandelier as a centerpiece. The prices promise serious pampering – rooms start at $350, with the most deluxe suites inching towards $1,000 per night.
Some local residents have been critical of the hotel’s addition to the Acre landscape, believing it to be the first step in a Jewish takeover of the Old City, whose residents are almost entirely Arab. They fear problems similar to Jaffa, where tensions rose after Jews began buying up properties and gentrifying what had been a run-down area. Municipal officials in Acre insist they want the residents to stay and benefit from the hopedfor tourism boom.
Today, Acre is a diamond in the rough that entrepeneurs, the government and the municipality are trying to polish to perfection.
Mayost says that in the past six years, 1.1 billion shekels ($300 million) has been invested in the city, including several large transportation projects. Most of the money has come from the government, although the municipality has chipped in as well. Another 700 hotel rooms are under construction. Mayost says that in ten years he hopes to see three million tourists every year in Acre.
Saher Najama sits with his aunts and grandmother in their small living room in the Old City of Acre. Tall and thin, wearing a black wool hat and chain-smoking, the 30-year-old is unemployed and has been for several years.
“I worked for a few days in a juice factory many years ago but when my friends quit, I quit too,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
“It was a mistake to quit. Without work, there’s no wife, no children and no honor.”
The women nod and serve coffee and delicious spinach burekas, made by the 82-year-old family matriarch, Fatma. The Najamas, like many poor Arab residents of the Old City, live on National Insurance payouts from the state but hope that is about to change.
They are planning to turn the large space on their roof into a hostel for backpackers, and offer meals for tourists as well.
“I work, I cook, I knit. I can do anything,” says 82-year-old Fatma. “I have the energy to do this and want to give to everyone.”
To demonstrate what the old woman is capable of creating, one of her daughters jumps up and unwraps a beautiful crocheted white wool cape for a baby that Fatma had recently finished.
The idea to open local homes to tourists is the brainchild of Ella Iungman, a dynamic architect who directs the Project for the Development of Tourism Initiatives in Acre as an adviser to the Ministry of Tourism.
“We travel all over the world to have this kind of authentic experience,” she says.
“People will come to these houses to hear traditional stories and eat authentic food.”
Another new business in the Old City is the hamam, or Turkish bath, being built by brothers Janos and Said Ghattos. The site was a hamam during Ottoman times but had fallen into disuse. The brothers spent 1.7 million shekels ($460,000) over two years and plan to offer tourists a relaxing and authentic experience. The arched stone walls have recessed lighting and the facilities have been outfitted in Italian marble – including two deluxe massage tables fashioned from white and green marble.
Acre, a city of 54,000 north of Haifa, is already on the tourist map. The Old City has been declared a UNE SCO world heritage site. I t is also the site of the tomb of the Baha’allah, the founder of the Bahai faith, and a site of pilgrimage for Bahais from all over the world. But most tourists stay only a few hours in the city, spending most of their time, and money, in nearby Haifa or the Galilee.
Rare for Israel, Acre has a mixed population, and 28 percent of the city’s 54,000 residents are Arab. In contrast, only seven percent of Haifa’s population remains Arab. Jewish and Arab residents here say they are serious about coexistence. In fact, Mayor Shimon Lankri likes to tell visitors that until recently he was the only mayor in the world who lived in a building that was equally divided between Jewish and Arab families.
That coexistence was threatened on Yom Kippur of 2008, when an Arab man drove into a Jewish neighborhood, angering residents observing the fast day. The incident sparked five days of rioting and a wave of bad feelings on both sides.
“Nobody could have envisioned the riots and nobody wanted it to happen,” Mayor Lankri tells The Report
in his office in the Old City, just a few yards from the Knights Hall, part of the city’s famous Crusader Castle.
“My policy is to be pragmatic. You don’t have to love me but you do have to respect me.”
Lankri, an independent mayor who is backed by Kadima, says he’s committed to maintaining the combined Jewish-Arab fabric that is one of Acre’s hallmarks.
“We’re trying to take down boundaries,” he says. “But we always need to be on alert. There are always extremists who are trying to heat up the situation.”
Although Acre is a mixed city, some of the neighborhoods are more mixed than others.
The Old City, where the poorest residents live, is almost exclusively Arab. Drugs are rampant and unemployed men hang out in the alleyways. Some of the residents charge that the Arab neighborhoods have fewer social services than the Jewish ones.
“We need more services, budget and attention in the Old City,” says Reem Hazzan, 28, who has opened an upscale café in her family home called Beit Maha, named after her mother.
“We used to have a health clinic here but it closed, and we need a community center as well.”
Hazzan says the 2008 riots affected the area badly, and many Jews stopped coming to Acre’s Old City on Shabbat. But now tourism levels have returned to normal and even increased.
Building boom Throughout the city, the building boom is palpable. Renovation and construction projects dot the Acre skyline. Mayost says they recently completed a soccer stadium and thousands of fans come out to see Hapoel Acre play. Six new neighborhoods with thousands of housing units are planned along with Israel’s first extreme sports park, which will have bungee jumping and other attractions. New roads have been paved.
But Mayost says they are constantly aware of the fact that Acre, with its mixed population, is different from other places.
“Arabs have their own culture and it’s not appropriate for Arab girls to go out to have a good time,” he says. “So if you open a club, only Arab boys will come. And Arab boys, along with Jewish girls and Jewish boys could be a problem.”
In Acre, as in the rest of the Israeli Arab sector, Arab and Jewish schools are separate, although nursery schools are integrated. A small number of Arab students also study in Jewish elementary and high schools.
Mayor Lankri says 52 percent of Arab high school students graduate with a bagrut matriculation certificate, much higher than the national average.
Hundreds of Acre’s Arab high school graduates have volunteered for sherut leumi, non-military national service, one of the highest rates in the country.
There is some concern here that what happened in the Old City of Jaffa could be repeated in Acre. In Jaffa, as the Old City became gentrified, Jews bought many of the old Arab houses. As real estate prices rose, many Arabs were priced out of the market – and resentment grew.
But officials insist they want the Arab families to stay in their homes and to benefit from the hoped-for local economic boom.
Tourism Ministry adviser Iungman says many Arab residents of the city were distrustful of her motives when she approached them about opening their own businesses. Many families assumed she was trying to buy their home, and asked how much she was offering.
“No, no, I told them, I don’t want to buy your house,” she said. “I want you to stay in your house and start a business.”
Iungman says when she began a year ago she hoped that ten families would join the project. She is currently working with 30 families to open businesses in their homes and has dozens of others who are interested.
“People here really want to open their houses to tourists,” she adds. “It’s good for them and it’s a way to make peace between Arabs and Jews.”