High above the rugged Judean Desert in Southern Israel the palace ruins of one of history’s most notorious villains overlook the shores of the Dead Sea. The site, built on Mt. Masada as a winter residence for King Herod sometime between 37-31 BC, lures thousands of tourists from around the world every year. Surprisingly, it’s what’s happening at the foot of the mountain that’s making the biggest splash in this craggy desert site.
For the fourth time in five years, the Israeli Opera Festival chose Mt. Masada as its backdrop. The summer festival, set to take place in this UNESCO World Heritage site through 2017, is helping to increase tourism and a deeper appreciation for the arts in a country with no formal opera tradition. Over 2,500 Israelis from Negev and the Dead Sea region build and operate the venue every year, which allows for spectacular, large-scale productions under a starry sky.
The performance, set amidst the history and natural landscapes of a country as old as rain, takes into account the fact that attendees more than ever are attuned to the story of their meeting or event—more than this, they want to play an active role.
“The Middle East is not necessarily the point of reference for us,” explains Israel’s Minister of Tourism, Dr. Uzi Landau. “We don’t compare with other places in the Middle East. Israel is the Holy Land—the land of creation.”
The Israeli Opera Festival also performed Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and “Requiem” this summer in the Crusader Courtyard of Old Akko, another UNESCO city in Western Galilee. The performances were just part of the reason why tourists flocked to the walled port city, according to Landau.
“[In Galilee] there’s a narrative under every stone. You have the sea and the restaurants…hotels and excavations. If you are there during Sukkot, you have a theatre festival for five days, which is kind of a street theatre festival. If you’re there in the month of June, you have opera. The city of Nazareth is just 30 minutes away with its own story of history, religion, nature and beauty. If you give me a couple of hours, there are many things you can do.”
Western Galilee is the only region in Israel that offers all accommodation options—from hotels and resorts to outdoor sleeping and kibbutz guest rooms—spread over approximately 3,000 rooms. As the revered cultural mecca of the north, groups will find performing arts and street theatre, museums, galleries, top-notch restaurants, nature reserves and parks, and plenty of ruins to peruse. Groups can walk from the Templars’ fortress in the west to the city’s port in the east via the underground Templars’ Tunnel. Imagery from the Crusader Period and the history of the Templar Order is projected on the tunnel’s stone walls. Landau says a lot of effort has gone into creating these kinds of meaningful group experiences, including a walkable Gospel Trail between Mt. Precipice and the Sea of Galilee. The trail follows the historical routes that Jesus is believed to have taken after leaving Nazareth. Other notable walking tours explore the Ottomans and Crusaders, Jewish history, and Napoleonic connections. Just a 30 minute drive from Old Akko is Sfat, the most mystical city in Israel, which Landau personally recommends.
This past July, Israel received roughly 42,000 American tourists. The number is down slightly from last year, but when it comes to the Middle East, Landau says it’s not really about the numbers.
“The problem is we don’t deal with statistics, but rather with perceptions,” Landau says. “Israel under fire is [still] safer than many other countries.” The Ministry of Tourism recently launched a village immersion program to help quell safety concerns that may be preventing more Americans from visiting Israel. Working closely with local DMCs, the program pairs individuals and groups with Jewish, Arab, kibbutzim and other families.
Landau believes the program really drives the idea of local global experiences home. “You see their folklore. You see their food—you can see firsthand the different styles of families throughout the country.”