Tourists flock to Golan's upgraded attractions

In past 3 years, gov't invested NIS 26 million in improving Golan tourist infrastructure.

Hamat Gader (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hamat Gader
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A budding tourist industry, which boasts a ski resort, boutique wineries and posh inns, has sprouted on the unlikely brush and volcanic rock terrain of the Golan Heights, where memories of bloody battles are still fresh. The Mount Hermon Ski Resort, which peaks at about 2,225 meters above sea level, has some 50 days of good skiing a year, says General Manager Menahem Baruch. The resort draws about 280,000 visitors a year. An intelligence-collecting radar station sits on the mountain's summit, where, on a good day, a naked eye can see all the way to Damascus. The land is dotted with trenches, foxholes, and a now-empty army base captured by the Syrians in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and later retaken by Israeli troops, at the cost of the lives of more than 100 soldiers. "The Hermon is not just a ski resort," Baruch says. "Since Yom Kippur [War], it has become the eyes of the nation and has taken on the significance and importance of a national site." In 1983, there were 6,800 Jews living on the Golan. In 2005, that number had almost tripled to 17,000, who live alongside 20,000 Druse and 2,000 Muslims, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. In the past three years, the government has invested NIS 26 million in improving the tourist infrastructure on the Golan. At the end of last year, there were 17 hotels in the Golan and nearby Upper Galilee, with 1,340 rooms available. More than 48,000 people stayed in the area in 2007, according to the Tourism Ministry. Undeterred by any eventuality of political talk of transferring the Golan to Syria, investors are planning luxury resorts in places such as the Jordan Park, home to the remains of Bethsaida, where Jesus is believed to have fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, as well as heal a blind man. The park also houses a special site for baptism rituals on the banks of the Jordan River and has had 15,000 pilgrims visit since the beginning of the year, about 10% of all the visitors during that period, said park manager Maaruf Abu Shaheen, a 34year-old Druse resident of the Golan. Winter skiers or summer hikers coming off the Hermon farther north can stop in any of the Golan's Druse towns for a pita made fresh on a wood-burning taboun, spread with goat cheese and sprinkled with the salty green zaatar spice, enjoying a mix of East and West in the space of several kilometers. The peaceful relations serve everyone well. "The Golan is something special," says Abu Shaheen. "We all cooperate and help each other." Olmert was a recent visitor to the Jordan Park, and afterwards dined at the gourmet restaurant Betty and Nachi Cook in the nearby Ramot settlement, where more than 200 residents own bed and breakfasts. Many of the B&Bs boast bedrooms with hot tubs for romantic getaways, and rent to couples only. The luxury tourism trend is only about seven years old, says Nachi Elkin, a 61-yearold retired entrepreneur who opened a restaurant, which offers a 20-course small-plate dinner, pretty much on a whim. "Tourism became more of an option as agriculture became less and the water shortage became more acute," Elkin says as he sipped from a mug of coffee before opening his eatery, a renovated closed porch at the front of his house. A visit to the Golan is not complete without a stop at one of the local boutique wineries, such as Chateau Golan. The Golan Heights Winery in the plateau's largest town of Katzrin is one of Israel's best known. The winery, founded in 1983, was one of the first to put Israeli wines, previously known as sweet and sacramental, on the global map. Flanking deserted bunkers along the rocky terrain are cultivated orchards that invite visitors in to pick everything from apples and peaches to cherries and blueberries. Hamat Gader, with its parrots, crocodiles and hot springs, latched on to the trend of romantic tourism in 2004 and invested about NIS 15m. in a 29-suite hotel for couples. The high season is from October to May and it hosts about 500,000 visitors a year, 20% of whom are foreign psoriasis patients who visit the pools for medicinal purposes, says Israel Eshed, general manager. Families come for the parrot shows and crocodile feedings as well as a small petting zoo. Hamat Gader is currently putting NIS 10m. into restoring ancient ruins where Roman royalty came to laze in thermal pools and enjoy raucous orgies. Management offices already are housed in renovated Syrian bunkers. Tourists were sparse on a recent mid-week trip to the Golan in the middle of a hot spell that put the midday temperature at Hamat Gader at about 42 degrees Celsius. But neither the heat, nor the possibility that progress on the diplomatic scene may mean giving up everything has stopped Israelis on the Golan from developing the tourist industry. On the Hermon, about $2m. a year is put into erecting new buildings, buying better equipment, constructing another lift. "We can't operate and make decisions based on rumor," manager Baruch says. "We have to continue as usual as long as we are here. And if there is a decision made that means we will no longer be here, then we will leave, despite all the pain." (Bloomberg)