At his Passover seder table, Kevin Bermeister wasn’t just thinking about “next year in Jerusalem.” The 51-year-old Australian technology innovator and real estate investor was contemplating the Holy City 30 years down the road.
In 2040 – or 5800 on the Hebrew calendar – Bermeister envisions a Jerusalem with underground traffic systems, rooftop gardens, and vehicle-free pedestrian areas in places like the Old City.
It’s all part of his Jerusalem 5800 Master Plan, a private initiative whose stated goal is to “shape Jerusalem into a true ‘World City’ with a robust economy to the benefit of all its citizens.”
“Our plan will create a ring of parks and green corridors that will surround Jerusalem and be scattered throughout the city,” Bermeister told the Times of Israel from his home in Sydney.
“The green space will enable walking tours, bicycles, and personal electrical means of transportation, and allow easy access to Jerusalem’s centers of culture, tourism, conventions and other events and attractions.”
“The parks will constitute a visual experience incorporating remnants of biblical landscapes including excavations, water holes, springs, ancient agricultural farms, terraces with unique vegetation, primeval roads, temples, gravesites and more – to instill in the city the character of its surrounding rural villages and its inherent biblical heritage,” he says.
If that doesn’t sound audacious enough, the Jerusalem 5800 Master Plan also calls for a major international airport to be built in the West Bank, near Jericho, that can accommodate 35 million passengers per year. Bermeister says his team, which is comprised of accomplished Israeli urban planners like Shlomo Gertner, has designed the airport to connect to Jerusalem and other major areas via high-speed rail and easy access roads.
Bermeister acknowledges that the realization of this plan will be anything but “easy.” There are enormous economic and bureaucratic challenges facing his team, not to mention diplomatic. The proposed site of the new airport is on land in which the Palestinians seek to establish a homeland. And the eastern part of Jerusalem – annexed by Israel after the 1967 war – is claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of the future state.
Relations between Jerusalem’s half a million Jewish residents and 300,000 Arabs are habitually tense and could also complicate Bermeister’s plan. Then, there is the challenge of protests by Jerusalem’s significant ultra-Orthodox Jewish population, which objects to any construction near ancient Jewish graves.
Bermeister himself was caught up in a politically explosive controversy last year when he and Israeli business magnate Rami Levy successfully prevented the takeover of Nof Zion, a Jewish development project in predominantly Arab eastern Jerusalem, by a Palestinian American businessman.
‘Our only goal is to improve the lives of the people who live in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas – it makes no difference if they are Jews or Arabs’
At the time, the Australian claimed that the Nof Zion deal was a sound financial investment and not conducted on entirely ideological grounds. He stresses that Jerusalem 5800 is meant to improve the lives of the region’s Jews and Arabs and hopes it can even help bring peace to the area.
“Our only goal is to improve the lives of the people who live in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas – it makes no difference if they are Jews or Arabs,” he says. “We believe that the prosperity will be improved through the increases in tourism but also through the development of infrastructure that’s required to support such an increase in tourism.”
He also says that none of the challenges deter him. Bermeister points to the fact that the Jerusalem 5800 differs from previously unsuccessful municipal plans insofar as it is “apolitical” and “its success is not contingent on the holistic acceptance of authorities.”
“Previous plans were most often felled by a single point of contention,” he says. “Jerusalem 5800, though, is divided into a myriad of independent projects. And since it is privately funded, it is able to work in conjunction with all major municipal and government agencies.”
Bermeister has met with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barakat more than seven times and says the former venture capitalist is “always cooperative and encourages investment in Jerusalem.” Barakat’s own plan for the city’s growth includes two primary areas for large scale hotel development — Binyanei Ha’uma and Derech Hevron — which the Jerusalem 5800 team has incorporated into its plan.
On the national level, the plan is being met with enthusiasm in at least one quarter.
‘Jerusalem 5800 has great potential to significantly increase tourism in Israel…I believe it can provide a huge contribution to Israel`s economy’ – Israeli Tourism Minister
“Jerusalem 5800 has great potential to significantly increase tourism in Israel, and given the personal commitment of its founder, I believe it can provide a huge contribution to Israel`s economy,” says Stas Misezhnikov, Israel’s Minister of Tourism.
Perhaps the most urgent – and achievable – aspect of the Jerusalem 5800 plan is its goal of adding more than 200 new hotels to the city to accommodate the global growth in tourism.
“When I started examining the city closely, I was really bewildered by Jerusalem’s stagnation over the past several years,” says Bermeister. “I started to look at inbound tourism particularly, and discovered that, in the past ten years, there had been a net addition of 300 hotel rooms in the entire city. In the context of global tourism, this number was very small – totally inadequate.”
‘I was really bewildered by Jerusalem’s stagnation over the past several years’
Based on global tourism trends, Bermeister and his team estimate that Jerusalem will attract ten million foreign tourists and two million Israelis by 2050. To accommodate these visitors, they believe the city needs to add 53,000 hotel rooms (it currently has around 10,000).
Of course, the $300 million question – that’s how much investment the Jerusalem 5800 Master Plan would require annually over the next three decades – is who foots the bill for these projects. Bermeister says he and other private investors are putting their own money into the plan because the revenues from the added economic activity will greatly exceed their investment. According to the plan’s promotional material:
“The gross annual proceeds from the additional rooms that will be developed, and their supporting infrastructure, will gradually increase from US $1.0 – 9.0 billion between the years 2011 and 2050, with an average annual added value of US $3 billion and the total added value resulting from the ‘Jerusalem 5800’ plan, over the span of the years, being an estimated US $120 billion.
Considering all the added elements and infrastructure that are required to support 10-12 million tourists annually, the annual net added value to the Jerusalem and Israeli economy is expected to grow from US $0.178 to 1.650 billion. The sum total of both the direct and indirect Tourism & Travel activities resulting from the expected development, including government investment in the required infrastructure, will be approximately 3.3% of the country’s GDP.”
Skeptics who doubt Bermeister’s instincts should consider how the Australian technology innovator made the bulk of his fortune: he was an early investor in a startup named Skype before it was sold to eBay in 2005 for $2.6 billion.