The Sea of Galilee, also known as Kinneret, is many things to many kinds of visitors. To Christian pilgrims coming from all over the globe, it’s a holy site where miracles took place. It’s also a camping mecca for outdoorsy Israelis, and home to the city of Tiberias, where campy, old-school hotels still welcome subsidized team-building work trips. But a luxury destination where you’d queue up to sip wine at a boutique hotel? Until recently, not quite. Things are changing, however, and rapidly so.
On a recent spring evening, Omri Yizhak, the owner of St. Urban Wine Bar in Tiberias, painted a picture. He posted, on Instagram Story, an image of a crowded line outside his establishment: “A line for wine in Tiberias? Who would have dreamt!” said the caption. The bar, operating at the Scottish Hotel since 2018, has been getting increasingly popular in recent months, and the wine festival it threw in May, for the fourth year in a row, was its busiest yet.
Meanwhile, around the veteran Scottish Hotel—until recently a lonely pinnacle of luxury around the Sea of Galilee—more and more chic establishments have appeared in the past few years, disrupting the area’s sleepy tempo.
First came the Setai Sea of Galilee, in 2017, gracing the area with manicured palm trees, private villas, and a photogenic pool, at a cool $657 nightly price tag. Around the same time, U Boutique Hotel stepped into a deteriorating old hotel building in the city, transforming it into a modern residence. The Scottish Hotel, not wanting to stay behind, underwent a massive refurbishment in 2018, adding the aforementioned wine bar and a wine cellar. In November 2019, Madgala, an impressive project with a private beach, joined the lineup, although it closed a few months later due to COVID-19; it has since reopened.
This summer, another ambitious undertaking—the complete refurbishment of the historic Galei Kinneret hotel—is about to be finished, revealing a luxury property equipped with a pool bar and restaurant run by celebrity chef and international restaurateur Assaf Granit. Many more projects, including a waterfront vacation apartment complex, are in the works.
The common thread uniting the new openings is opulence that targets high-end clientele in a way that’s unusual for Tiberias—a city whose socioeconomic status is lower than the national average. Yizhak, who has family ties to the area, said: “I’m 33, and ever since I can remember myself, I’ve been hearing the same thing every day about Tiberias: Wow, there’s so much potential here!” He’s part of a familiar pattern, hardly unique to Israel: young people returning to their childhood landscapes to infuse them with an upgraded—in Yizhak’s words, “Tel Avivian”—flair.
Saar Zafrir, a hotelier and developer currently based in London, remembers working as a teenager at a Sea of Galilee beach club and bungalow business owned by family friends. He’s the creative spirit behind the rebirth of Galei Kinneret, a hotel favored, in the past, by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and European diplomats and businesspeople. The goal of the project, operated by the real estate development group Israel Canad, is, according to Zafrir, “to establish something that brings Tel Aviv to the Kineret, with a big name and the experience of a chef restaurant. To bring Kinneret to the next level.”
The timing seems right: Locked out of world travel during the pandemic, Israelis had rediscovered local tourism with enthusiasm, and the moneyed international travelers are bound to return when the country finally reopens for them. But turning the Sea of Galilee into a burgeoning tourism oasis doesn’t come without a price—or at least without scrutiny.
Like any place where nature, public access, and commercial opportunity live side-by-side, the Sea of Galilee has been the subject of conflicting interests in the past. It’s been in the center of environmental struggles, but also—and this is a familiar scenario in Israel—in the heart of the push-and-pull of power and people, private and public. In 2008, a dedicated law meant to regulate construction and development passed, establishing what’s now known as Kinneret Cities Organization, a governing body holding the keys to tourism profits. Back in 2011, a large group of local activists protested the decision to establish what ended up being the Setai on one of the lake’s most picturesque shores.
Yael Dori, the head of planning for Adam Teva V’Din (People, Nature, and Law, in Hebrew), an environmental nonprofit dedicated to protecting Israel’s environment, remembers the case well. She was involved in the court dealings that eventually led to a “compromise,” making the hotel’s management open up a chunk of the private beach to the public, and turning a sliver of the property into a free nature reserve. “While beach protection in Israel is making strides, the issue is that when a building plan is approved, it can’t expire,” said Dori, mentioning a 2004 law drafted to address the protection of public beaches in the country. “Due to old, approved plans finally being realized, we’re still seeing a lot of construction around the area that’s not always in accordance with the public and the environmental needs.”
This March, articles in the Israeli media caused ripples by calling out the systematic sale of lake-adjacent lands and the lake’s beaches of the now-privatized HaOn kibbutz to the highest bidder—through lucrative housing projects. When Zafrir opted to add a lavish deck to Galei Kinneret, he was met with a firm “no” from Kinneret Cities Organization. He was able, however, to limit the access to the formerly public boating dock of the hotel, from about 12 boats to only three. “I’m not against the local people, but for us it’s important that you can come and have a good time,” Zafrir said, implying that boaters, with their load music and unabashedly Israeli vibes, might burst the escapist bubble he’s aiming to build.
Also in March, as a result of diminishing public beach access, unprecedented congestion was reported around the Kinneret beaches on a warm Passover weekend, causing—in conjunction with pandemic limitations—their premature closure for the day. “The population of Israel is growing at a scary pace, and the demand for the Kinneret is endless,” said Dori, adding that the lake, especially around the mouth of the Jordan River, is rich with biodiversity that must be protected. “There’s only one Kinneret, and we have to make an effort ensuring that as many people as possible enjoy it, while preserving it.”
If all of this is not enough to make development challenging, there’s also the history: Magdala’s opening got significantly delayed since approximately 2006, when an archeological site revealing the remains of an ancient synagogue was discovered on the property during construction. Galei Kinneret, too, had to work its way around antiquities discovered on its site; Zafrir worked them into the design. “It was important for us to treat this seriously,” he said. “Under the pool, there will be a few windows and you’ll see the restoration of the archaeological site.”
Indeed, sometimes the solutions have to be that creative. But everyone’s trying their best, so it seems. Yizhak treats his wine bar and festival as a “mission,” no less: “A lot of people in the area rely on the hotel and restaurant business for income and want the region to develop. They deserve it,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s important to preserve this crazy lake with all its history.” What happens around the Sea of Galilee in the next few years will be a key step in the country’s balancing act of forward-thinking and profitability, progress and preservation. And it probably won’t be smooth sailing.
Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.