A house by the lake

Tiberias’s economy rises and ebbs with the tourist tide, and the real-estate scene follows suit.

Tiberias 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Tiberias Municipality)
Tiberias 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Tiberias Municipality)
Tiberias – a town of some 40,000 inhabitants on the central western shore of the Sea of Galilee (a.k.a. Lake Kinneret) – has seen better days, and its real-estate scene reflects this.
Tiberias is both a historic and religious city, but in modern times this fact has not significantly influenced its economic development – a major element when analyzing a city’s real-estate situation.
Founded in 20 CE by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, the town got its name from the reigning Roman emperor Tiberius, under whom Herod Antipas served as a “client ruler.”
The city has had its ups and downs, but has been continuously inhabited since that time. It passed from Roman Byzantine rule to the Arabs, who then lost it to the Crusaders; it was later reconquered by the Arabs and then by the Ottoman Empire. As a result, it is saturated with historic sites, yet the Antiquities Authority has not been especially active in the area.
There are the remnants of the old city walls, and a 2,000-year-old Roman theater, discovered 15 meters below ground near Mount Bernike in the Tiberias hills, that Herod Antipas built; it seats 7,000 people. But despite these historic antecedents, the city leaders have not made use of history to attract tourists and generate economic growth.
The same holds true for the city’s religious credentials. Tiberias has been considered a center of Judaism since the middle of the second century CE. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE, the center of Judaism migrated to Tiberias, which became the seat of the Sanhedrin – the supreme religious body of ancient Israel – and consequently the new capital, the political and religious hub of the Jews in the Holy Land. Furthermore, since the 16th century, it has been considered one of Judaism’s four holy cities, together with Hebron, Safed and Jerusalem. But not much has been made of its potential religious appeal.
The economy of Tiberias is largely based on tourism, but it is doubtful that these tourists come primarily because of its past. The vast majority are locals who come for a holiday at the shores of the lake, or Christian pilgrims who come to visit the sites associated with the life of Jesus. There is also the Tiberias hot springs, believed to cure various skin and other ailments.
There is a small port on the shores of the lake. Fishermen used this port for thousands of years, but since the 1990s, its importance for fishing has gradually decreased; now it is mainly leisure craft that use the port.
The water level in the lake – the country’s major freshwater reservoir – has been decreasing for decades due to a combination of climate change and drought. If the fall in the lake’s water level is not halted, it will have a profoundly negative impact on the city’s economy, real estate included, because the lake is the main tourist attraction. Tourists are the economic lifeblood of the city; the economy rises and ebbs with the tourist tide, and the real-estate scene follows suit.
TODAY, DEMAND for real estate in Tiberias is weak because the economy there is relatively weak, and also because of the influence of the real-estate situation in the country as a whole.
The present municipal administration has been promoting further development of the city, planning 6,571 new dwellings and promoting building more hotels and an industrial park. The aim is to fortify the economy, and bring in professionals and other new blood.
“The real-estate industry in Tiberias is closely linked to the economy of the city and with the ability of the town to attract new residents,” says Mayor Zohar Oved, adding that in eight to 10 years, the city aims to have boosted its population to at least 70,000.
“When this happens, it will completely change the face of the city,” he says. “In the meantime, we are making very heavy investments in infrastructure. We have upgraded the roads, the education system,
etc. People will want to live in our city if they have employment for themselves, a good education for their children, a good cultural environment and adequate housing, and that is what we are doing.” He also declares his town “an excellent place of residence for English speakers, whether old-timers or new arrivals. Because of the tourist industry, it has an international ambience in which English speakers will be able to find employment.”
Simeon Gino, the Re/Max real-estate concessionaire in Tiberias and its surroundings, describes the real-estate scene as weak but not much different from what is happening in the country as a whole.
“Demand at present is mainly from locals who want to upgrade from their apartments or houses,” he explains. “But in Tiberias, in contrast to other cities in Israel, prices are holding steady because home owners are unwilling to reduce prices.”
The town is divided into three distinct areas from a real-estate perspective: the lower city where 53.3% of the population lives; the upper city, where 32.4% live; and the middle area, inhabited by the remaining 14.3%. The least expensive part of town is the upper city, which housed the new immigrants who came in the ’50s and early ’60s. The lower city is where the original residents of the city lived. The most expensive area is the middle section.
Gino says that a second-hand, four-room apartment on the posh Hashomer or Ahad Ha’am streets in the middle neighborhood can cost from NIS 850,000 to NIS 950,000, while an average three-room apartment can cost NIS 650,000.
In the upper city, an average four-room apartment can cost around NIS 430,000, while a three-room apartment can cost an average of NIS 320,000.
In the lower city, a four-room apartment can cost NIS 520,000 and a three-room apartment NIS 350,000.
A penthouse in the middle section of town can cost NIS 1.3 million on average; one in the lower city costs an average of NIS 1 million.