Once-sleepy Haifa is now a tourist mecca, and MayorAmram Mitzna is spreading the word
By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor
It's a long road from the West Bank to Beverly Hills, but ifthere's anyone equipped to navigate it gracefully, it's Amram Mitzna.
In 1987, near the end of an illustrious 30-year military career,the former major general was appointed commander of Israel's Centralregion -- where he found himself in the eye of the intifada. For thelast four years, he has enjoyed a second, undoubtedly calmer careeras mayor of Haifa. That's where the Beverly Hills Hotel comes in.
Mitzna, 52, recently gathered with members of the local press atthe hotel for a "media breakfast" co-presented by Israel's TourismOffice and the Haifa Foundation. The purpose was to get the word outabout the northern Israeli city's renovation fever and newfoundtourist appeal. The mayor's remarks were a combination of dry wit andgood, old fashioned civic boosterism.
Judging from the upbeat promotional video and slickly producedpress kit, Haifa does have a lot to crow about these days. Among thenew improvements are a lovely beach promenade for strolling and cafehopping, a la Tel Aviv; a sprawling, hyper-modern convention center;a thriving high-tech business park; eclectic restaurants; and a vastmarina.
Other projects currently under construction should enhance thecity's appeal even further. The landmark Ba'hai Temple is investing$250 million in interior renovations and lavishly elaborate tieredgardens that will be free and open to the public. Two new, upscalehotels -- a Holiday Inn and a Hilton -- will also be completed soon.There are plans for a massive regentrification of the German Colony,the historic downtown village settled by German Templars in the early19th century. The Colony's main boulevard will be widened toaccommodate art galleries, museums, shops and cafes, making it,according to Mitzna, "the Champs d'Elysees of the Middle East."
Despite the old Israeli adage -- "Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem praysand Haifa works" -- even before the current boom, this scenic portcity of a quarter million people always had more charm and characterthan its industrious image implied. Along with its universities, itsbay and scenic Mount Carmel, part of Haifa's uniqueness lies in therelative ease with which the Jewish majority coexists with a sizableand civically active Arab minority. One of Mitzna's deputy mayors isArab, as are several members of Haifa's city council. Locals shuttleregularly between Haifa and Amman, just a four-hour bus ride away.
The tolerant, laid-back atmosphere in Mitzna's forward-lookingcity by the bay is a source of bemused pride. "I'm a big believer inpeople living together, working together," he said. "Not just Araband Jew manage to get along in Haifa. Even Jews themselves -- thesecular and the Orthodox -- manage to live without conflict, and weknow how hard that is to accomplish.
"Haifa is the only Israeli city that has public transportation onSaturday, and there is no problem with it. In certain ways, we are avery abnormal city, and that abnormality in a place like Israel is, Ithink, a good thing. People don't honk their horns at each otherevery minute. They wait for a green light before crossing thestreet.... Let's put it this way: Compared to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,Haifa is a very normal city. This is why Israelis have a saying: 'Youcan travel to Europe without flying, just by visiting Haifa.'"
Several cultural events and celebrations are scheduled to takeplace in Haifa to mark Israel's 50th anniversary and the year 2000.For a list of events, or for general information about travel andinvestment in Haifa, call the Israel Tourism Office at (800) 596-1199or the Haifa Foundation at (213) 935-3254.