Whether you want to stay in a converted eco-bus, be an eco-volunteer or enjoy a technology free, organic B&B offering alternative therapies, you’ll find a plethora of green tourism options in Israel.
By Avigayil Kadesh
Zohar Katzir watches as workers put the finishing touches on the adobe guest houses at his three-year-old Essene Farm in Even-Sappir, a small village just west of Jerusalem overlooking a majestic forest dotted with ancient natural springs.
In a few months, the lodges – roofed with recycled tiles, insulated with thick straw bales, and connected to biological purification pools for waste – will be the centerpiece of an eco-resort. Until then, guests can come and go on a daily basis to learn natural hygiene, organic gardening and supervised water fasting.
Zohar Katzir, owner of eco-tourism development Essene Farm watches as workers put the finishing touches on his adobe guest houses.
Thursday evenings, Essene serves up raw-food cuisine prepared in its central building, a mud-and-straw structure equipped with a gray-water purification pond and a water-free compost commode. Nearby, lettuce sprouts on recycled cardboard topped with goat manure-rich compost – a model of the ‘permaculture’ method of living and growing crops based on ecological and biological principles of sustainable environmentalism.
"We wish to see people developing spiritually through love and work closer to Mother Nature," says Katzir.
Travel green to Israel
Essene Farm is one of the newest links in Israel’s rapidly growing chain of ‘green’ eco-tourist sites that attract domestic and foreign travelers alike. Interest is so high that Israel’s Tourism Ministry has launched a dedicated ‘travel green’ site, with information for green vacationers. It kicked off a two-year promotion, ‘Israel: One Hundred Years of Green,’ last Earth Day to underscore the country’s role in the global environmental movement.
Developing green tourism and assessing the ecological effects of tourism in member states were topics addressed at the annual tourism conference of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which took place in Jerusalem in late October. Israel is the newest member of the OECD.
"There is growing interest in sustainable tourism in Israel," says Michal Wimmer-Luria, founder and CEO of Eco & Sustainable Tourism Israel, a non-profit organization established in 2006 to promote ecotourism awareness and implementation.
The group’s website lists many different ecotourism options, from organic wineries to resorts where visitors can sample natural therapies and healthful cuisine. Accommodations range from hotels to campgrounds to Bedouin-style tents to guest cabins fashioned from natural materials and designed to minimize their impact on the environment. While they are not necessarily more pricey than conventional lodgings, studies have shown that 70 percent of tourists from English-speaking countries are willing to pay as much as $150 extra per week for environmentally-friendly accommodation.
A few of the green places to stay, like Essene Farm and Herzliya’s energy-conscious Sharon Resort Hotel, are near major population centers. Others are farther from civilization, such as Cabins in the Mist in the Golan Heights, which accommodates guests in hand-built, ‘technology free’ wooden cabins surrounded by organic cherry orchards.
Two other regions abundant in eco-tourist facilities are the Negev Desert and the Arava, which lies in the Great Rift Valley between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The majority, however, are concentrated in Israel’s verdant Galilee area in the north.
Green in the Galilee
In the Upper Galilee, for example, ecology-minded tourists will find Vered HaGalil, a Jewish-Arab orchard resort constructed of wood and local basalt stone. In addition to alternative therapies such as reiki and energy healing, the farm features horseback-riding trails. The Schnable Zimmer in this region, an award-winning ecotourism site, offers five cabins set amidst a permaculture environment including a vegetable garden, goat pen and chicken coop.
Back to Nature via the Bible, situated in the Western Galilee, is an ecological mountaintop village where visitors can sample biblically-inspired medicinal plants and herbs, stomp grapes, and grind grain into flour or olives into oil. Also in this area is Indigo Guest House, a holistic, environmentally-conscious ‘zimmer’ (country inn or bed-and-breakfast) where meals are assembled from locally-grown organic ingredients irrigated with recycled gray water from the lodges.
The Lower Galilee’s plentiful ecotourist spots include Yarok Az and the HooHa Cyclists House. Yarok Az is a permaculture farm offering recycled-glass-bottled dairy products and agricultural workshops. Overnight guests can stay in an authentic geodesic dome covered by wood, earth and plants.
Owned by a veterinarian and a computer specialist who are married to each other, HooHa offers lodgings geared to bicycle-bound tourists as well as services such as repairs, replacement bikes, and organized, accompanied field and road trips.
This particular specialty vacation destination may be the focus of increased interest as Israel prepares to spend some $30 million over the next few years to beef up the country’s attraction for serious cyclists. A 3,000-mile network of bike paths is to include a national trail spanning the length of Israel. Unveiled recently was the first leg of what will be an 80-mile Sea of Galilee Mountain Bike Trail, providing free access to the nature reserves and beaches surrounding the area. Travelers may rent mountain bicycles and helmets and receive guidance from the trail’s professional bikers.
A bus-turned-inn and a desert succah
Down south in the Negev, ecotourism is rapidly expanding in synch with the region’s overall development. Among the more unusual ventures in this arid part of the country is Zimmerbus. Created by Eyal and Avigail Hirshfeld from old buses headed for the scrap heap, this Negev hilltop eco-zimmer was featured several years ago in a French publication as one of the 1,001 unique places to stay in the world.
Featured in a French publication as one of the world’s most unique places to stay, the Zimmerbus resort in the Negev takes old buses and refurbishes them as guest rooms.
"The idea came out of need," recalls Eyal Hirshfeld. "We brought one bus to refurbish as a guest room for friends and family because we didn’t have enough space in our house."
The Hirshfelds and their children covered the metal shell with adobe and roofed it with date-palm leaves. Inside, it was outfitted tastefully for guests, again using as many natural materials as possible. The ‘guest bus’ soon became a destination in the little village of Ezuz. "People liked the idea and suggested making it into a zimmer," says Hirshfeld.
They purchased an additional two old buses and went into business after similarly refurbishing and outfitting them. Bins for separating recyclables are provided on site, and the Hirshfelds plan to build a water recycling system shortly, which will use wastewater from the zimmerbuses and their own house to irrigate an organic garden.
The family raises milking goats, chickens and produce and makes organic cheese, yogurt and bread. "If we have any excess we sell it, but mostly we use it ourselves because we are trying to be sustainable," relates Hirshfeld, who is also planning to start an organic vineyard.
He estimates that about half of Zimmerbus’ guests are Israeli, while the other half hail from many different countries. "We get a lot of tourists from Germany and Switzerland, and we also get people from North and South America, New Zealand, and Australia, among other places."
Other options for Negev eco-tourists include Succah in the Desert, situated near the Mahtesh Ramon, the world’s largest natural crater. This site offers biblical-style guest huts with solar-powered lighting. Vegetarian meals for guests include homemade bread, wine, cheese, pickles and jam.
GoEco, established in 2005 by Israelis Jonathan Gilben and Jonathan Tal, offers a large selection of projects to ecologically concerned and adventurous ‘voluntourists’ who want to explore the country by getting to know its people, customs and eco-system through a vetted volunteer program. The many options include a coral reef conservation project in the Red Sea, eco-building in the Arava, wildlife conservation at a biblical nature reserve, and working at an eco-festival in the Negev.
GeoEco also arranges programs at the Arava-based Kibbutz Lotan, which has long been a popular destination for voluntourists wishing to get away and help the environment at the same time. While staying in straw-bale-and-mud geodesic domes, visitors take on assignments in organic gardening, alternative/natural building, recycled art, maintaining nature trails, setting up educational workshops, and working in the Lotan migratory bird reserve.
Organized voluntours in Israel also are available at Tamra, a Lower Galilee Arab village on the northern Mediterranean coast. Visitors can arrange to do an internship at small family farms where they can lend a hand harvesting pomegranates, olives and figs; and they can learn how to roast coffee beans, pistachios, almonds and pine nuts.
Experiencing green Israel
Bringing environmental consciousness into Israel holiday plans can be approached from several different angles aside from accommodations. Here are some new developments in travel, sightseeing, and eating in the Holy Land:
• In October, El Al Airlines and the Jewish National Fund announced a program offering any North America-Israel on-line round-trip ticket purchaser on El Al the bonus of a tree planted in his or her honor in Israel. The passenger receives a certificate to certify that the tree has been planted. Since tens of thousands of passengers from North America purchase their tickets to Israel online, this program could result in thousands of new trees taking root in Israel.
• Among the expanding roster of Israeli ecological tourist sites is Ayalon Park, part of which encompasses a former giant garbage dump in the Greater Tel Aviv area. The effort to reverse environmental damage and prevent future damage here is centered on a state-of-the-art, 75-acre recycling plant where people can watch how household and industrial refuse, garden debris, and corrugated paper are transformed into electricity, clean irrigation and washing water, and agricultural fertilizer. A Visitors Center opened in 2007 showcases recycled artwork and hands-on workshops for children and teens.
• Whole Foods-style retailers are a new and growing phenomenon. The latest entry in this field is the Super-Sol supermarket chain’s Super-Sol Green in Ra’anana, selling health foods, organic products, wine, cheeses, and gluten-free products. Three additional branches are planned, which will offer the first serious competition to the Mega supermarket chain’s Eden Teva Market, which by the end of the year plans to add three more branches to its existing 10 natural foods supermarkets and six smaller store-within-a-store shops.