As ultra-Orthodox move in, the face of tourism changes in Safed

As ultra-Orthodox move in, the face of tourism changes in Safed

Only four hotels remain open in the northern Israeli holy city, down from more than 20 in the 1980s

Tourists walk down the street in the northern Israeli city of Safed.
Tourists walk down the street in the northern Israeli city of Safed.

While a visit to the northern city of Safed has remained a vacation mainstay for many Orthodox Jews, its increasingly religious character has significantly changed how the average Israeli views it as a potential tourism destination, according to a report in Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

Safed has featured a distinctly religious character for hundreds of years, serving as a center of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah since the 16th century. This atmosphere did not deter Israelis from across the political spectrum from visiting, however, and by the 1980s the city boasted some 22 hotels.

That number is now down to four, with many of those that have closed down having been converted to religious institutions affiliated with Chabad and other ultra-Orthodox movements.

However, such figures can also be misleading, given both the large crowds of visitors present in the city during vacation season and the prevalence of available rental apartments.

The streets of Safed (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The streets of Safed (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A cursory search on Airbnb shows more than 300 available places to stay, indicating that despite the decline in the number of hotels, accommodations are still available and in demand.

Today, some 30 percent of Safed’s 35,000 residents are Haredi and many local businesses are closed on Shabbat. One resident complained to religious news site Israel National News that secular residents are beginning to feel displaced by the demographic changes.

“The city of Tzfat [Safed] is filled with Haredim who come vacation in and around the Old City,” he said. “What draws the Haredi population to Safed are the cemeteries, the nostalgic atmosphere, and the city’s many old synagogues. We have no problem with that, but local residents feel like they’re being pushed out during these periods.”

Despite the closure of hotels, tourism is still important for the city’s economy, a representative of local kosher certification agency cited by the website said.

“Vacation season brings with a lot of foreign money to a city which so desperately needs a thriving economy,” he said. “There are many businesses whose profits are made mostly during this busy period, when the city is filled to bursting with many tourists and vacationers. Apparently, the massive Haredization which the city is undergoing, together with the vacation season which brings mostly Haredim, has led to an enormous rise in the number of restaurants and businesses requesting stringently kosher certification.”

Recent efforts to market a new housing development to the secular market also appeared to fail, with 60 percent of buyers belonging to the Haredi sector, Globes reported.

“The project is being aimed at and built for the traditional secular sector but if Haredi families choose to live there then that is their choice and full right,” the municipality said in a statement.

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