With the inauguration of the Stephen J. Harper KKL-JNF Hula Valley Visitor and Education Center at the Agamon Hula Park last week, Israel aims to strengthen its place as a leader in one of the fastest-growing tourism trends.

Avitourism, the new word for birders who travel, is one of the most lucrative aspects of the multibillion-dollar ecotourism industry. In Canada, birdwatching is more popular than gardening. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that more than 45 million people—or one out of every five Americans—are birders. In Israel, there are hundreds of active birdwatching societies.

Israel is one of the best places in the world to observe the seasonal migrations of the millions of birds who travel huge distances to find warmer climes and then return to their natural habitat. Some 500 million birds fly over Israel every year.

One of the prime stops in Israel for hundreds of bird species that touch down on their lengthy journey from Europe to Africa and beyond is the Hula Valley in the upper Galilee region that includes the Agamon Lake.

In 2009, BBC Wildlife magazine named the Hula Valley one of the top 10 “most outstanding sites in the world for nature observation and photography.”

On Nov. 6, the Visitor Center named for Stephen J. Harper—Canada’s 22nd prime minister—was inaugurated to enhance the experience for the hundreds of thousands of birders who come to ride or walk on more than 5 miles of trails surrounding the lake. The center will also focus on education, conservation and research.

From left: JNF Canada president Wendy Spatzner; Laureen Harper; former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper; and KKL-JNF world chairman Daniel Atar (fourth from left). Photo by Photo by Michael Huri.

On a recent late fall morning, staff ornithologists counted more than 56,000 cranes at the park. Dozens of flamingoes, storks and ducks mingled in the lake as a couple of wild boar ambled nearby through the water.

The eye-catching new Visitor Center blends in with its natural surroundings and features VR stations that simulate a flight from the viewpoint of a migrating bird; a 194-square-foot digital gesture-controlled wall that projects a live feed of surrounding migrating birds; a 3D digital topographical model of the Hula Valley; the 220-seat Laureen Harper Auditorium that screens 3D films and a stereoscopic docudrama; classrooms; a cafe; and a rooftop observation platform for extensive views over the entire valley.

“The new center brings together nature and high-tech,” noted Wendy Spatzner, president of JNF Canada.

Daniel Atar, world chairman of KKL-JNF, told visitors, “Lake Hula is a prime destination not only for migrating birds, but for tourists everywhere. This new beautiful center is going to bring in many more visitors and lift up the entire economy for the Northern Galilee.”

Regional officials hope that the increase in tourism will create jobs, and encourage more Israelis and immigrants to move to nearby periphery towns like Hatzor and Kiryat Shmona that have been struggling to bolster their populations and attract new development.

For Shay Charka, chief ornithologist for the KKL-JNF, the new center is “the jewel in the crown.”

While noting that cooperation with international-birding bodies is still in its infant stages, he revealed that KKL-JNF had just signed a memorandum of understanding with the 770,000 member U.S.-based Ducks Unlimited group dedicated to the conservation of wetlands.

Inside the new Stephen J. Harper KKL-JNF Hula Valley Visitor and Education Center at the Agamon Hula Park in Israel. Photo by Judy Lash Balint.

‘One of the greatest restoration stories’

At a gala dinner in Jerusalem on the night before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Harper and his wife, Laureen were joined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. A delegation of hundreds of Canadian KKL-JNF donors and JNF supporters from around the world joined in a standing ovation as Netanyahu awarded a citation to Harper for his commitment to JNF-KKL and the State of Israel.

“Israel has had no better friend than Stephen Harper,” said Netanyahu.

Sen. Linda Frum, a Conservative member of the Senate of Canada since 2009, and her husband, Toronto Argonauts owner Howard Sokolowski, headed the Canadian delegation. Frum explained that the project grew out of a 2013 JNF gala that was a tribute to Harper when he was still in office. Since that event, more than $5.7 million has been raised for the Visitor Center.

Harper, known as a strong supporter of Israel, recounted the history of the Hula Valley, which was inappropriately drained in the 1950s in an attempt to clear out the swampy marshlands and create fertile farmland. Many natural species were wiped out, and JNF-KKL subsequently spent millions of dollars to restore the valley and return the land to productive farming.

Harper, who was raised in the United Church of Canada, is a longtime member of the evangelical Christian and Missionary Alliance. He compared the Hula Valley project to the return of the Jewish people to its native land.

“This park is one of the greatest restoration stories, just like this country is to the Jewish people,” he declared. “It is a magnificent honor to have this center named after me. I am grateful for this beautiful occasion and will never forget this visit.”

The center is expected to be open to the public within the next month. Admission fees will be 28 NIS ($8) per person.

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