Tel Aviv Independence Trail: a New Philanthropic Model for Sustainable Economic Development?

Photo credit DISKINPRO via Israel Travel News

By Jack Gottleib

On March 14, 2018, as a part of the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) Conference, Tel Aviv will finally unveil its newest attraction, the Independence Trail, at Independence Hall in celebration of Israel’s 70th year of independence. The new trail is modeled after Boston’s Freedom Trail. It will lead visitors to 13 significant sites around City Hall and Rothschild Boulevard.

The Trail will offer guided tours, a self-guided tour via phone app, and will be marked for casual pedestrians by gilded plates on the sidewalk and a visually stimulating path between landmarks made of metal. The tour will tell both the story of Tel Aviv’s history, and that of the State of Israel’s founding.

As a JFN member who specializes in Jewish Heritage, I was thrilled to watch as the trail being constructed over the course of a month. As a former Bostonian who has walked the Freedom Trail, I appreciate what the Independence Trail will bring to Tel Aviv. As a Tel Avivian who lives next to Independence Hall, I am delighted that others will experience the trail firsthand.

The Trail builds a narrative around Tel Aviv’s first urban center, Akhuzat Bayit, and its 66 founding families. The trail takes a tourist from the establishment of this urban center in 1909 through Israel’s declaration of independence at Independence Hall in 1948, a pivotal but bittersweet victory. As Ben Gurion watched the outbreak of joyous hysteria that day, he remarked to Shimon Peres, “Today, they are dancing. Tomorrow, they will be dying.” War broke out next day.

There is no question in my mind that Tel Aviv’s Independence Trail is a landmark step for Israel cultural heritage tourism. In opening the trail as a part of Israel’s 70th Independence Day celebration, the trail will draw appreciative crowds and word will spread. The potential boost to Israel’s economy and tourism through established trails is particularly appealing in the near future because Israel’s government is currently pushing to breach the elusive goal of five-million tourists per year. The Independence Trail will be a compelling reason for tourists to come to Tel Aviv, many of whom would otherwise be content to just visit Jerusalem.

I believe that we at the JFN, along with other philanthropists, should be at the forefront of this economic push. Tourism is a recognized tool for achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs) outlined by the United Nations. In Israel, tourism accounts for five-billion dollars of its revenue and 250,000 jobs. The average tourist spends $2000 USD on a trip to Israel. These expenditures account for 10% of the local economy and particularly impact smaller enterprises(SME’s) such as the businesses of tour guides and boutique hotels.

For those of us who are looking for ways to achieve social and economic impact in the North and South of Israel, tourist trails and historical routes are underutilized assets. Some amazing trails do exist, like the Israel National Trail, but more needs to be developed. A righteous graves tour or a synagogue antiquities route, for example, could help attract people to travel extensively in the North. Biblically themed routes could do the same in the South. Moreover, establishing trails would provide a real opportunity for intercultural dialogue.

Using trails to promote diversity can readily be seen in the geographic and thematic routes developed by the Association of European Jewish Heritage (AEPJ) who works closely with the the Council of Europe in the area of Jewish heritage route development. The Council of Europe, famous for such routes as the Camino Santiago, recently reported that “[Designated] routes can promote dialogue between urban and rural cultures, between regions in the south, north, east, and west of Europe, between developed and disadvantaged regions, and promote understanding between majority and minority, native and immigrant cultures.” In Israel, where there are as many as 80 identified ethnic groups or sub-cultures, such trails could help to bring about more of a sense of unity.

The current challenge is how to bridge the gap between the competing groups invested in cultural heritage. Many cultural heritage tourism assets are controlled by various government agencies and municipalities which do not cooperate with one another as a rule. Often, organizations such as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Israel Antiquities Authority, KKL-JNF, and the Ministries of Tourism and Culture end up at odds with each other rather than joining forces. Just today, for example, the Office of the Attorney General ruled that the Western Wall (one of Israel’s main tourist attractions) cannot legally be controlled by the Rabbinate. Moreover, few of these agencies have comprehensive assets in English, let alone digital assets such as smartphone applications or websites.

So how can we help? Philanthropic networks like JFN can help build the necessary public-private partnership between philanthropists, NGOs, local governments, and the State of Israel itself. We can help to identify potential trail routes which would increase the GDP of local economies in turn. At the same time, we can fulfill our various missions of closing economic gaps, social inclusion, and identity enhancement. In developing these public-private partnerships, we would be able to create a sustainable and scalable program for creating new tourism assets.

JFN has already published a guide on how NGO-governmental partnerships can be formed. With such a plan in place, we can create a massive boost in Israel’s tourism industry in the coming years by joining forces with the Israeli government. We can preserve culture and promote diversity which is the ultimate goal of my organisation World Jewish Travel. World Jewish Travel specialises in developing technology to benefit cultural heritage tourism in Israel and would welcome the opportunity to help in this effort.

The Independence Trail will be a monument to the never-ending creativity of Start-up Nation’s Start-up City, Tel Aviv. With the website, phone application, tour, and inlaid route throughout the ‘old’ city, this trail raises the bar as to what a trail can and should do. It tells an authentic story about the nation of Israel and the city itself while exemplifying the positive impact that trails can have on tourism, social inclusion, and mutual understanding.

Jack Gottleib is CEO of World Jewish Travel.