The joys of camping in Israel

The best way to vacation in this corona-concerned summer.

Indi Park, next to the Jordan River (photo credit: RONEN TOPELBERG)
Indi Park, next to the Jordan River
(photo credit: RONEN TOPELBERG)
‘In most years, in June and July, we don’t usually have many guests,” explains Itai Ram, owner of the Shamballa Ezuz desert accommodation in Ezuz. “People mistakenly think that everywhere in the Negev is extremely hot, but actually temperatures are relatively mild here in the Ramat Hanegev region, despite the fact that the sun is pretty strong.
“Compared with previous years, this year we’ve been inundated with requests, especially for August. It’s usually so quiet here in the summer, but this summer has been excellent.”
Shamballa Ezuz offers a number of options, including a huge air-conditioned wood cabin.
“In the summer months, I prefer that guests don’t set up tents here outside underneath the boiling sun,” continues Ram. “The cabin is large enough to set up six tents or to have 40 people on mattresses (which we supply) without tents.”
How do you understand the increased demand this year?
“Well, since no one can go overseas for vacations this summer, they’re looking for alternatives here in Israel where they can experience vast open desert areas. In addition, not all of Israel’s hotels have reopened.”
So your business has benefited from COVID-19 restrictions.
“Now business is hopping, but we suffered losses of hundreds of thousands of shekels from the closure in the spring. April and Passover vacation make up our high season. Do you know what it’s usually like here that time of year?
Unfortunately, this year we were shut down. The moment we were allowed to reopen – and I pray we won’t be shut down again – we’ve been back in full force, and it’s been wonderful. I can honestly say we have had a dramatic, 100% increase over last summer. I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like what we’re currently experiencing.”
Are you at full capacity?
“We still have a few openings for the last week of July and August.”
WHILE MANY businesses are still licking their wounds and worrying when and if they will ever be permitted to reopen, due to COVID-19 restrictions, camping sites have been experiencing a great reawakening this summer. Most camping sites have seen increased traffic compared with the same months last year. This may not make up for lost income in March and April, but at least now they are full of visitors.
Yaron Mark is the owner of Indi Park, situated next to the Jordan River. Indi Park offers a day full of activities, including kayaking, SUP paddleboarding, pedal boats and canoeing on the river.
“People can set up their tents here and pay for camping services, including use of the bathrooms, showers, tables, chairs, electricity and lighting,” explains Mark. “The fee also covers entrance to Indi Park.”
What’s your occupancy been like compared with last summer?
“We’ve seen an increase of over 100%. People are calling every day and asking if it’s safe to come, checking if it’s not too crowded. People are looking for outdoor places where they can enjoy the fresh air. It’s great that families can spend the day here outdoors, where it’s safer, and then spend the night safely together in their tent. This is certainly much safer than going to a hotel.
“We’re still not going to be able to catch up to last year’s revenues, since we lost out on all of the company ‘fun days,’ which take place on weekdays, where all the employees come for a full day of team-building activities,” continues Mark. “This is the bread and butter of our business, and none of these are held in the summertime. We have had an increase in the number of people camping here now, but this doesn’t bring in as much money. We’re just trying to keep the business alive now by relying purely on income from camping.”
Did you make any changes at the camping site to adjust for COVID-19 regulations?
“Yes. In past years, guests weren’t required to make reservations ahead of time. But now, in order to receive the purple badge standard, we accept only a certain number of guests, to adhere to strict standards regarding space between tents and hygiene. We are very attentive to the new regulations. We also are not filling to capacity, because who knows if next week the guidelines might change, and we don’t want to have to call families and cancel their reservations.
“So what we do is fill up to 50% capacity, and then three days before, we take reservations for the second half. We just tell people to call back a day or two beforehand and we’ll let you know if we have space.
“I am constantly checking the most minute details and trying to keep the business afloat. Our goal is to survive the year and not whine too much about difficulties. Hopefully, next year will be better. We are keeping our heads up, smiling lovingly every day, and working hard to keep afloat. We are keeping our eyes set on the long term. We’ve invested over NIS 1 million in Indi Park, and we are finding that people prefer coming here over hotels.
“There’s been an increase of 20%-30% in the number of people going camping this summer compared with last year. People feel much safer in the outdoors, with space between them and other families,” notes Daniel Vaknin, a community coordinator who organizes hikes around the Kinneret at the Kinneret Authority. “The Authority maintains 10 official beaches around the Kinneret where guests are allowed to set up camping tents. Each car that enters our beach areas is automatically registered in our database, and the numbers show that there’s been a large increase in weekday stays compared with previous years.
“Weekends have always been full. More Israelis are also choosing to go camping this year for their vacations since it’s a lot cheaper than a hotel and they also prefer to be outdoors, and not worrying about being indoors and possibly near people who could be sick. Our sites offer bathroom and showering facilities, and overnight rates are quite reasonable.”
Dorit Elmaliach, general manager of the Western Galilee Tourism Association, notes, “One of the advantages of vacationing in the Galilee is that the temperature is cooler, and it’s a lot easier to find streams or natural springs where you can cool off. The COVID-19 epidemic has offered us a great opportunity to invest in our camping sites and renovate our facilities.
“Camping sites in the Galilee are full to capacity. Even before school ended, families began rushing up North. Camping is much cheaper than bed-and-breakfasts or hotels, and there are so many wonderful activities to engage in, such as sailing, cherry-picking and night hikes. There are 20 camping sites in the Upper Galilee.
“We’ve seen an increase of 30% in camping sites this summer compared with last year, and many are booked solid for the next two or three months,” continues Elmaliach. “Since Israelis can’t fly overseas, people are searching for holiday venues where they will feel safe from contagion. The epidemic was actually great timing for camping sites. Many people have been put on furlough, or have been fired from their jobs, so they have less cash available for vacations. As a result, we decided to lower prices by 15%.”
“CAMPING OUT is a great way to spend time with your family in places that comply with purple tag standards,” says Kobi Dresher, the owner of Khan Shirat Ha’arava in Moshav Tzofar in the central Arava.
Has this season been profitable for you so far?
“No, not at all. Because it’s hot in the Arava in the summer, most of our visitors come between Rosh Hashanah and May. March, April and the first half of May comprise our high season, which we completely missed this year due to the epidemic. This period usually covers 40% of our annual revenue. There’s no way we can recuperate these losses. But we do have a few families now, and we have already received plenty of bookings for the Succot holiday.”
Because people are drawn to camping for the open air and the nature experience, not just the low prices, a number of glamping sites in Israel have also seen a rise in reservations, which can cost thousands of shekels.
“People are really hesitant to go to hotels in the middle of this pandemic, so glamping is a great option for people who like to be pampered and have their privacy,” says Shirli Cohen-Orkavi, vice president of marketing and sales at Eshet Tours. “For example, Havayat Harochvim in Beit Oren offers a glamping package that includes luxury tents that are outfitted with all the necessary facilities, a gorgeous view and lots of fun activities for the whole family, such as horseback riding, Tomcar ATV tours, archery and swimming pools. You can also sign up for rappelling and water hikes where you walk inside Nahal Oren.”
If you’ve ever wondered how much such a luxurious glamping experience runs, which includes a family tent that comes with a fridge, electrical outlets, a/c, a private bathroom and shower, an alternative sitting area, breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a number of local attractions, you might be surprised to know it costs only NIS 1,550 for a couple with two kids. Two nights in the middle of the week will set you back NIS 2,750 per car.
Khan Shirat Ha’arava also offers upgraded tents for NIS 100 per person per night.
“We’ve had an increase of 35% compared with last year,” explains Dresher. “Of course, we strictly follow the purple tag standards. People want to get out into nature, and enjoy the open space, but are also happy to sleep in an air-conditioned tent. We also offer fully equipped kitchens and a number of cozy relaxation spots so that guests can easily maintain social distancing at our site. We’ve also renovated the bathrooms, so that guests have more privacy and personal space.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.