A good place in the middle

Beersheba's new czar of tourism, Gal Greenberg, intends to put his city on the map.

By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
June 3, 2009 13:38
A good place in the middle

Gal Greenberg 88 248. (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)

 
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Do you know? 1. Which city in Israel is still known by the name it had during the Chalcolithic era (4500 - 3500 BCE)? 2. In which city did monotheism, the foundation of the world's three major religions, have its origins? 3. Which city is older: Jerusalem or Beersheba? 4. During the 400-year reign of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks built only one city in the region that now constitutes Israel. Which one? 5. Where did the last Light Horse Cavalry Charge in history take place? If you didn't answer "Beersheba" every time, then Gal Greenberg, Beersheba's new minister of tourism, would like a moment of your time. Up to now, Beersheba, the ancient City of Abraham, hasn't showcased its attractions very well and tourists shied away. Greenberg intends to change all that. Beersheba is on the move. "'Revolution' isn't too strong a word," the 36-year-old Greenberg says, taking a short break from the ringing phones and lines of people wanting a minute of his time. "We're just starting. But there's an amazing amount of creative energy in this city and we have the full support of our new mayor. Just watch: In two, three or four years, Beersheba will be the tourist headquarters for Israel's entire South, anchoring everything the Negev has to offer. We're in the perfect place and the time is right. We're ready to go." To say that Greenberg has plans is like saying the Negev has sand. His almost endless to-do list ranges all the way from gleam-in-the-eye projects, up to several that are nearing completion. Having grown up in the Negev helps. Born in Dimona, Greenberg spent part of his youth in Arad, then went to Bar-Ilan University for his degree before going to work as a tour guide. He'd spent several years with the Negev Development Authority when just over a year ago, former Beersheba Mayor Yaakov Terner called to ask him to create a new Beersheba Department of Tourism. He isn't quite the first to hold the position. "Many years ago, something like a Tourism Department was created, but it didn't take. For a lot of reasons, it got buried and never became functional," Greenberg notes. "Over the years, several departments initiated projects to increase Beersheba's appeal to tourists, but none of them were coordinated through a central department. So when Mayor Terner asked if I'd be willing to try again I was delighted. It's not a political position - I work for the municipality." It's hard not to get caught up in Greenberg's enthusiasm, which seems to bubble up and overflow. "Look where we are," he says, jumping up to point to a huge colorful wall map, something he designed while with the Negev Development Authority. "Beersheba is in the exact geographical center of the country. We're here, there's the Dead Sea. There's Eilat in the far South. Anybody coming from the North, going to any of these big tourist places has to pass Beersheba. It's a long trip. They want to stop somewhere. From now on, we're going to make sure they stop in Beersheba." Good idea. But at the moment, there isn't any one place that especially welcomes drive-through tourists. Where will they stop? Greenberg doesn't hesitate: "The Beduin shuk! Look. There's a natural junction. It's the perfect place. Pretty soon all tourist buses will be stopping there." That's a little hard to see at the moment. The venerable but slightly frayed Beduin market isn't much of a tourist attraction - and it's only open on Thursdays. "Revamping and expanding the Beduin market is at the top of the list," Greenberg says, noting that the open-air market established by the quasi-nomadic Beduin Arabs has been a part of the Beersheba landscape since 1905, back when Beersheba was still a Turkish city. Back then, that's where the Beduin went to buy, sell or trade camels, sheep, goats and anything else they needed, and where a few brave tourists ventured in search of gold jewelry or authentic crafts. "The Beduin shuk has deteriorated over the last 50 years," Greenberg admits. "We know that locals still go for bargains in clothing or housewares, but it doesn't attract tourists. Even the Beduin call it the 'Chinese Market,'" he laughs. "We're changing that. We're building a big Beduin Museum right in the middle of it, complete with a good restaurant, the kind of place where tourist buses will stop to let people rest, eat and shop. It will all be open all day, every day. It's a perfect place for tourist buses." What do the Beduin think? "They're as excited as we are. We're working together to make it happen," Greenberg, who is fluent in Arabic, notes. "It'll be good for everyone." On coming into office, the first project Greenberg tackled was revitalizing Be'er Avraham, Abraham's Well, in the Old City, which currently serves as a visitor center. Be'er Abraham features an old dry well - very likely several hundred years old, but most definitely not constructed 6,000 years ago, when Abraham the Patriarch settled in Beersheba. As a visitors center, its main attraction seemed to be very efficient air conditioning, which was extremely welcome on hot summer days. Although the center offers a film highlighting the city's attractions, the film tends to inspire more giggles than awe. Featuring a goofy guy in a pith helmet and too-small uniform, viewers are supposedly shown around the city, but once dubbed with any number of foreign languages, the guide's speech and gestures appear comically out of sync with the voice-over. Even more embarrassing, the souvenir T-shirts, postcards and tote bags on offer are more likely to sport logos from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv than Beersheba. Greenberg had his own problems with Abraham's Well. What stuck in his craw was that the huge wooden water wheel for the well was merely symbolic. It wasn't designed to work. "That's the first project I took on," he says. "I wanted that water wheel to actually pump water. We're already making a new film. So once the wheel is pumping, the new film is ready and souvenirs tout Beersheba and the Negev, the Visitors Center will be transformed. We've already raised the money for this project - give us a couple of months and you'll see." In terms of time and expense, the most ambitious project on Greenberg's clipboard is the creation of the Beersheba River Park. "River Park will be the greenest thing in the Negev," he says. "Both sides of the Beersheba River will become a greenbelt. Eventually the greenbelt will include several hotels and a conference center." In terms of historic significance, making this project prime is appropriate. During the Chalcolithic period, over 4,000 years ago, the river was what attracted the first people to settle in Beersheba. Nomadic people came seeking water, then settled into established villages all along the banks. Nor is the River Park project a pipe dream - it's also underway. "The first thing we did was construct a bike path that eventually will run the entire length of the River Park. Last Hanukka we had a big bike festival, and for Independence Day, another big celebration with music and places for picnics." The River Park project connects to what will become another major tourist attraction, Greenberg says. "The ANZAC Trail - the path followed by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during World War I is of major historic significance. Developing that to its full potential is another goal." Because of its historic significance and the continuing interest in the fierce battle that was fought here, the ANZAC Trail tie-in may ultimately prove to be the City's star attraction. The courageous charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba ranks as one of the most memorable battles in modern military history. On October 31, 1917, the Australian mounted horsemen overran and captured the last remaining Turkish trenches, thus securing the critical water wells in Beersheba for themselves and their horses. "It was the last cavalry charge in history," Greenberg notes. "Before Beersheba, the last place the Light Horse Brigade fought was in Gallipoli, Turkey. Last year, 60,000 people from Australia and New Zealand went to see the Gallipoli site - and in Gallipoli, the Brigade was routed. Here in Beersheba, they won! We think a lot of people from Australia, New Zealand and Turkey will come to visit the site to see it for themselves." Beersheba already has a Park of the Australian Soldier, featuring a life-size dramatic sculpture by Peter Corlett. The whole ANZAC Trail site, 60 kilometers long, will run from the ANZAC monument in the western Negev, through the remains of the British Camp near Kibbutz Be'eri, through Park Eshkol, the Osnat Well, the ruins of Halutza and Park Golda. "The character of the Trail will change as it nears Beersheba," Greenberg says. "People can walk it, if they want. It will connect directly with our River Park project. Following the Trail, visitors will wind through various city sites until it culminates at the British Cemetery on Rehov Palmah. All along, there will be signage, trail markings, shaded areas, benches and maps in both Hebrew and English. It'll draw a lot of people." Another military-oriented attraction, the Palmah Brigade Memorial, also enjoys Greenberg's favor. Today, the monument consists of several dramatic sculpture elements created by Dani Karavan to memorialize the Negev Brigade and the 1948 conquest of Beersheba. "The memorial is on the outskirts of town, and it already attracts visitors," Greenberg says. "Unfortunately, they come to the memorial but bypass the city itself. So in the near future, we'll be opening a tourist information place there, with a small restaurant or café. There's also an old outdoor amphitheater there, now in ruins. We're going to reconstruct that so we can host performances there." "The memorial is unique, a very meaningful monument, so we're intent on making sure we bring in only things that reflect the solemn nature of the monument." Greenberg also looks toward another expensive - and, by necessity, long-term - project: the restoration of the archeological area buried under a parking lot adjacent to the city's market. "Biblical Beersheba was right there," he says. "The city of Beersheba today is where biblical Beersheba was, where the people themselves lived. For several years, archeological excavations were done there, so we know pretty well what we have. But to make it a visitor attraction - a place where people can come, walk on the ancient tiles, see the site where our ancestors lived and worked - that'll take time and money." The City of David in Jerusalem serves as inspiration for this project. "Beersheba is older than Jerusalem. We have 6,000 years of history here. This was the City of Abraham, the founding place for three of the world's major religions. We don't have what the City of David has yet - but we have no shortage of options. There's an enormous Byzantine church ready for excavation, too. We have plenty to work with here." One of Greenberg's tools for bringing in tourists is to first invite delegations of people connected to the tourist industry to come and explore Beersheba. In February, a delegation from IMTM, the International Mediterranean Tourism Market, arrived. "We invited everyone we could, people from all kinds of businesses who supply or cater to tourists, plus city and regional officials, people from restaurants, hotels, travel agents, journalists, people who run visitor attractions. We took them on tours, showed them the city, pointed out all the things we've already accomplished in addition to those in the works. We promised them other things that will help them promote our city, like a new tourist map. The last one was done in 2000, and the new one will be ready soon in several languages. It was a good session. We made some headway." Which brings up an interesting question: Beersheba - with over 200,000 residents - has astonishingly few hotels or other places for visitors to stay. Where will all these new tourists sleep? "That's the essential question, isn't it?" Greenberg asks. "Where will they sleep? It's a mantra of the travel industry that where people sleep is the key to success. So what can I tell you? The plan for Beersheba now says there should be one hotel near Neveh Noy (in the south) and another one in the north. They aren't there yet - but it's a chicken-and-egg sort of thing. As tourism increases, so will the number of hotels. Once we get visible progress on the River Park project, hotels will be coming to us. That's what it's designed for." What's most interesting about Greenberg's approach to tourism is his grasp of history that forms the basis of the fount of new ideas. Every proposal springs from something solid in the past, some event, some historical situation, that would make a site appealing to today's tourists. Another example is his plan to create a bicycle and walking path winding around all the city's ancient wells. "The reason ancient Beersheba came into being was because it had a water supply," he says. "Beersheba has a high water table, so people came for the water. Today the well water isn't potable, but a hundred or so of those old wells still exist. We're going to make a scenic path that will connect them all, going all the way from Beit Eshel to the Old City. It'll add to everything else that's already there." What about the Negev's most popular tourist attraction, the camel? Greenberg laughs, pointing at his computer's screensaver, which features an exceptionally beautiful camel. "We love camels around here. We're very respectful of camels because they bring us lots of visitors. But we want people to know that camels aren't the only thing we have to offer. We're the gateway to the whole Negev - there's a world of things to do and see. All in addition to camels, of course!" There's much more on Greenberg's lists: A Biblical Museum, for one thing. "Beersheba is the city where monotheism began. What better place for a Biblical Museum?" Expanding the City Zoo is another. "There's nothing like it anywhere else. It's great now and could be better. The zoo is ripe for development." The British Cemetery isn't ignored, either. "It's a fascinating place, lots of people come to see where the British soldiers are buried. We can expand on that." Turning the Old City into a tourist attraction all by itself is also on the books. "No question about it, that needs to happen. What we're doing right now is putting a lot of money into infrastructure. We're repaving streets, putting in new sidewalks, making it easier to get around. When that's done, we can start turning it into the real attraction it is, as the only city, in 400 years, the Turks planned and built in Israel. "My frustration is that I can't get everything done in the first year," Greenberg sighs. "The biggest obstacle is money. Everyone thinks all these ideas are wonderful - and they are. But with the economic situation in the US, donations are down. Even so, we're doing okay. I've got a good agreement with the city. They'll match every shekel I raise from outside. That's what I'm working on." What's the best thing about his job? "I have nowhere to go but up. Everything I start to do is new - nobody has ever done it before. So I'm very optimistic. The good news is, the municipality understands how important it is to promote tourism to this area. It's good for business, good for growth. And Beersheba has so much to offer. We're the link to everything in the South, biblical, cultural and historical. We're the hub. That's a real good place to be right now."

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