New nature chief aims for tourists to see more of Israel’s national parks, reserves

With lengthy to-do list, Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s first female chief talks about new sites, continuing threats, and a plan to stop feeding cranes to avert bird flu

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Masada was the most popular site among tourists to Israel in 2022. (Yaniv Cohen, INPA)
Masada was the most popular site among tourists to Israel in 2022. (Yaniv Cohen, INPA)

Encouraging overseas tourists to visit a wider variety of nature reserves and national parks, improving the English-language website, and developing an audioguide for the 10 most popular locations are among a host of improvements being planned by Raya Shourky, who took over as director general of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority in June.

INPA sites saw some 10.71 million paying visitors this year (an estimate has been made for the remaining days to December 31), Shourky reported at an end-of-year event for journalists on Tuesday.

That figure is up from 9.129 million last year, but is still 18% down on 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

Of the 10.71 million, 1.469 million were tourists — an increase from 75,000 last year, but still far below the 3.747 million of 2019.

Out of the INPA’s roughly 70 sites that charge entrance fees (most of the organization’s 400-plus sites are free), the most popular for both Israelis and tourists this year was Caesarea National Park, which showcases King Herod’s seashore palace and offers a variety of eateries and stores. This was followed by Ashkelon National Park on the southern Mediterranean coast, and Ein Gedi Nature Reserve in the Judean Desert.

Ashkelon National Park proved the most popular with Israelis, followed by Caesarea, Ein Gedi and Yarkon National Park, which runs through Tel Aviv.

Illustrative: Visitors at the Banias Nature Reserve in northern Israel on April 3, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For tourists, Masada topped the list, followed by Caesarea, Ein Gedi, Qumran — where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered — and the Banias Nature Reserve on the Golan Heights in the far north of the country.

For foreigners, these were followed, in order, by four sites in the north — the national parks of Beit She’an and Megiddo, Tel Dan Nature Reserve and Arbel National Park, with the Herodium National Park near Jerusalem in tenth place, attracting just 25,000 visitors from overseas.

Orit Steinfeld, acting director of the INPA’s audience and community department, said the authority was working to get the Tourism Ministry to promote more than “the usual eight sites” to foreign visitors.

Raya Shourky (Yaniv Cohen/INPA)

Shourky is the authority’s first female director general, and the first to be chosen from within the organization, where she has worked for 33 years. She is responsible for 2,000 employees and 1,500 volunteers.

She told the meeting that a clutch of new sites would be opened next year, among them Tel Lachish in central Israel (a fortress site destroyed by the Assyrians in 701 BCE) and Sussita, a former Hellenistic city east of the Sea of Galilee.

Entrance to the visitors’ center at the new Tel Lachish National Park in central Israel, due to open in 2023. (Yaniv Cohen, INPA)

She added that she wanted to draw more visitors to many of the beauty spots in the Judean Desert, north of the Dead Sea.

This area forms part of the West Bank and has a number of areas characterized by unsupervised waste dumping, sheep and goat herding, and other practices detrimental to wild flora and fauna.

Shourki said she had secured funding for additional INPA inspectors who would strengthen the authority’s presence in area nature reserves. She said she hoped to provide a fuller report on activities there next year.

Among the threats that continue to face the country’s wildlife and challenge the INPA were loss of natural habitats, natural water sources, and animal and plant species; invasion of foreign alien species; and climate change.

Gray cranes at the Hula Lake Park in the Hula valley in northern Israel, November 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

On the subject of bird flu, she revealed a plan — not yet approved — to gradually stop feeding wild cranes in the Hula Valley in northern Israel.

Bird flu has swept the globe this year, killing 97 million birds worldwide. Last year, it led to the culling of hundreds of thousands of chickens and turkeys in Israel and the deaths of up to 7,000 wild cranes, mainly at Hula Lake Park.

Over the years, the authority has allowed the feeding of pelicans and cranes in order to keep the birds away from farmers’ fields and fishponds.

Shourki explained that some 100,000 cranes pass through Israel each year, either on their way to Africa, or back to Europe and Asia.

While around 10,000 of them used to stay in Israel for a few months, feeding them has seen this number grow to 40,000 birds. It is thought that avian flu spread so quickly among the cranes last year because of the crowded conditions at feeding spots.

Shourky said that representatives of the INPA, the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund nature which manages the Hula park, the local regional authority, and the farmers had met to formulate a package to stop the feeding over five years to reduce the temporary resident crane population back to 10,000. But the plan would need a budget of several million shekels, much of it to compensate the farmers for the crops they would lose.

An Israeli firefighter works to extinguish a fire, on the second day of wildfires near Jerusalem, August 16, 2021 (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Shourky lamented the failure to implement a government decision to clear and thin areas of vegetation around towns and villages to reduce the spread of wildfires.

She revealed that the INPA had offered to help clear some of these areas outside of the properties it manages, but the government had fallen before this could be approved and put into practice.

Just over 22,000 dunams (22 square kilometers, or 8.5 square miles) within nature reserves and national parks went up in flames during 105 incidents this year, down from 48,505 dunams (48.5 square kilometers, or 18.7 square miles) in 222 incidents last year.

Shourky said this was probably due to far fewer fires being caused by explosive devices launched into Israel from Gaza this year, as well as to more clement weather conditions.

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