Breathing new life into Old Acre

Injecting high-class business into the city may be the only thing that can save it from drug dealers and crime.

Old Acre 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Old Acre 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For years, people have said that the city of Acre has potential. Yet the city, listed as one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites, has never seemed to be able to translate that potential into action. There's the poverty of the city's residents, the abundance of government projects that never seem to get finished and the open secret of the city's drug dealers and crime. When Eliya Mourany, a resident of the nearby village of Meillya, decided to invest in an eighteenth-century building in the heart of the old city and turn it into a five-star boutique hotel, everyone thought he was nuts. What tourist would ever want to stay overnight in Acre? "I had a vision, I had a dream," Mourany said. "Maybe I also had a lot of craziness." Yet since Mourany opened Akkotel in August 2007, he has already attracted visitors from around the world, including the United States ambassador to Israel. "Before, they told me I would never succeed," Mourany said. "Now they tell me I was a visionary." Tourists, shop owners and City Hall officials all agree that Acre is finally making good on its potential, despite grumbling among residents in the historic old city that this is the start of gentrification and the first step toward trying to coax them to leave the old city and transform it into a tourist mecca. Mourany said that if he had set out to purchase the hotel as a good business move, he never would have done it. He did it more out of the love of antiques and the challenge, he said. After competing with four other companies for the property in 2000 - at a price he didn't want to disclose - he has already sunk NIS 9 million into restoring the property. The site, right next to Land Gate, at the western entrance of the shuk (market) on Salah al-Din Street, was built during Ahmad al-Jazzar Pasha's reign to serve as a customs house and police headquarters. Over the centuries, it has gone through several reincarnations, including stints as a boys' school and a courthouse, until it was closed in 1995. The city offered it for sale at a public auction, and Mourany won. There is not a corner of the 16-room hotel in which Mourany doesn't take pride. On a recent tour with a visitor, he pointed out everything - from the gold detailing on the freshly painted ceiling, to the electric fixtures in the stone walls that sit exactly where candles and kerosene lamps used to, to the antique gate that now leads into the dining room. He even hired artists from nearby Kibbutz Eilon to make mosaics of Acre city scenes he used to decorate the base of the bar. Mourany said he has always been an antiques collector. He spent most of his working life as a nurse in an intensive care unit and then as a teacher at Tel Aviv University's nursing school. "I used to take care of sick people," he said, "and now I take care of healthy people." Guests have marveled at his Middle Eastern hospitality, which goes beyond the usual hotel manager's job. One guest commented on a travel Web site that Mourany even drove him to a restaurant to save him the taxi fare. The guest book is filled with comments in Hebrew, Japanese, Italian and English from visitors ranging from a group of monks touring from Italy, to an architect from Chicago who commented that the hotel was a "wonderful combination of the old and the new," to Dr. Ahed Yashruti from Ireland, who grew up in Acre and went to school in the very same building from 1923 to 1932. "This building saw glory and neglect," Yashruti wrote in the guestbook last August. "Thank you for bringing it back to life." At 58, an age when some men retire, Mourany threw himself into restoring the building. He worked closely with an architect to maintain the building's ancient appeal. Mourany had to excavate tons of dirt and debris from inside the building and work around its antique structure to maintain the building's character and charm. On the guestroom floors, the original stone walls are exposed in the hallway, but protected under glass. Mourany wanted to maintain the ancient archways and has kept some of the original stone pieces in place. Each room has its own individuality, but all boast Internet access, flat-screen televisions and mini-bars. "We've stayed in some lovely places around the world and this hotel matches them," said Gretchen Bloom, an American living in Rome, who recently spent a night at the hotel with her husband, Peter. She said her husband has already been to 116 countries while she's "only been to 92." Bloom said she was happy staying inside the old city, near its historic sites. Not everyone is pleased with the hotel, however. One Acre resident who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the city has "sold out its history" to private investors. He thought the city should have tried to keep the building in the public domain. Other old city residents fear that the hotel's opening heralds a trend of gentrification and their subsequent displacement. One woman said she worries that what happened in Jaffa will happen in Acre: real estate prices will skyrocket and family-owned shops will be turned into boutiques and cafes. "The hotel might be good for tourists and some shop owners who cater to tourists, but it's bad for the rest of us," she said. But Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri disagreed, explaining that there would be more jobs for the area's residents. He pointed out that in addition to Akkotel there are other projects in the works. Uri Buri, owner of Uri Buri Restaurant in the old city, is currently building a similar six-room suite hotel. A new 80-room youth hostel is also planned. And the eighteenth-century Khan al-Umdan, "The Inn of Pillars," which historically served as a stop-off point for travelers, will soon be up for public auction. "The old city has been neglected for too long," Lankri said. "But we're hoping that this is the start of new businesses, restaurants and cafes." He also added that it isn't realistic to expect a private investor to plunk down millions of shekels and turn these historic buildings into non-profit endeavors. Samir Abu Baker, whose family owns Said's humus restaurant, a popular destination among visitors, agreed with Lankri. He said the hotel would prompt more businesses to open, providing work for local residents, encouraging them to stay in the city. He also said that the city still had a long way to go to improve itself. "The city is dead at night," Abu Baker said. "When local people want to go out in the evening, they go to Nahariya or the Kiryon." By day, the city is filled with tourists and school buses of children, shoppers and day trippers. But once the sun goes down, the shuk's streets are deserted and the city's other face shows itself. "There are drug dealers and users and it's a little bit uncomfortable to walk around in the shuk late at night," said Omri Horowitz, a resident of the nearby settlement of Shavei Zion who does business in Acre. Mourany said that he hopes the hotel's presence will improve the city's night-time atmosphere. He has opened a restaurant in the hotel and also caters small parties. In a few months, he plans to open a café on the building's terrace, with views of the sea and the ancient city walls. He said he is optimistic that his hotel will help turn the city around. The reservation book is proof of that. "We already have reservations for the Acre Festival in October," Mourany said.