The sale of a 185-room hotel at the entrance of Jerusalem on August 16 was not just a 17.5 million dollar real estate acquisition by Australian multi-millionaire Kevin Bermeister, but one investment in a broader and more calculated strategy to make Jerusalem a global tourism capital.
In an interview with the Jewish Press’s Yishai Fleisher, Bermeister, founding investor in Skype, founder of file-sharing network Kazaa, and builder of Australia’s largest video game distributor, discussed Jerusalem5800, his $30 billion dollar, 28 year project to revolutionize the city and quintuple its number of annual visitors.
“I’ve been coming to this city for 7 or 8 times 5 or 6 times a year… I’ve been walking the streets learning about the city and I’m fascinated by it, I love learning the I love the history, I love the archaeology, I love the Jewish culture, I’ve become more religious, there’s many, many aspects to my fascination with this city,” Bermeister told Fleisher. Yet the fact that history and culture-rich Jerusalem has not advanced into a world class city the likes of New York City or Paris bothered Bermeister. And he decided to do something about it.
Together with a team of activists, engineers, architects and environmental and demographics experts, Bermeister began work on a grandiose vision for the modern-ancient city, and entitled it Jerusalem 5800, after the beloved city and the turn of the Jewish century which will occur in less than 28 years on the Jewish calendar.
Much of the plan, made public at Jerusalem5800.com, revolves around taking the visitor on a historic progression through the city, starting in the west and working toward the south – which means redefining the entrance to the capital.
“I am a personal fan of the city reorienting its entrance from the west towards the south. I think the south is the traditional entrance to the city from the time of Abraham, and in fact, it’s the right approach for tourists who are coming here to learn about the city,” Bermeister said. “If you approach the Old City from the south, you begin your journey three and a half thousand years ago, and as you progress up towards the north, towards the Western Wall, the Kotel, you arrive at a period two thousand years ago, and then you can progress to the modern city which is of course in our present day.”
When they come, tourists of Jerusalem in the year 5800 (2039 on the Gregorian calendar), will enjoy an advanced public transportation system and will benefit from significantly more travel accommodations.
“I realized that industry here has not really fully developed, it’s not catered to the extent that it is in other cities, and I started to look at tourism specifically… in the last 10 years, only 300 hotel rooms have been built. Once I discovered that fact, the light bulb went off…”
That burst of inspiration was partly the realization that investors stand to gain tremendous amounts by buying stakes in everything to do with Jerusalem tourism – particularly hotels which Bermeister hopes will house 10-12 million visitors a year by 5800, up from the current 2-3 million.
Bermeister is the first to admit that many of the projects Jerusalem 5800 are focused on making a profit for investors.
“The Leonardo hotel, for example, was one of those properties that we identified early. At the entrance to the city, adjacent to large zoning changes in Binyanei HaUma – which has recently been announced by the city – that would increase the density of building and perhaps provide us the opportunity to increase the density of zoning on our property and therefore improve the return on investment to our investors,” Bermeister said.
“[Jerusalem 5800] is a private/public partnership plan, and we’re trying to… develop the city into the future based on the prioritized return on investment to investors. So [we’re focusing on] those projects that will be most interesting to investors the soonest.”
The hope is that more money will mean more progress for Jerusalem. Jerusalem 5800 aims to “continue to encourage the development of a fund that would be supported by many more investors around the world who could put their funding and finance concentration into Jerusalem and into Jerusalem building,” said Bermeister.
But Jerusalem 5800 is not without its challenges. Progress can be halting because of Jerusalem’s atypical status under the jurisdiction of both the city’s mayor and the prime minister of Israel. The interests of various ministries and planning authorities must also be taken into consideration.
Not to mention the will of God. “Everything we do anticipates a possible future – please God, there will be a Temple and people will come three times a year to Jerusalem,” Bermeister said.
“But the 28 year plan really focuses on the what we know and what we can do something about in physical terms in the city today. Preparation of the city, taking advantage of the existing growth in global tourism, for which Israel is not obtaining its market share, and really to focus on making sure that we do obtain our market share of inbound tourism by addressing the issues of the Jerusalem city center and access to the Holy Basin.”
“So like Jews around the world who pray three times a day and sometimes a lot more, that the Temple will in our lifetimes become a reality, [the Temple] would become an amplification, a significant amplification of the present planning,” Bermeister said. “But in any event, 5800 would enable that thinking and enable us to cope with that amplification….it also looks to the future and hopefully will enable the city to be ready for an event such as the Temple.”
“I’m looking forward to a very bright future and I think Israel and Jerusalem are key to the examples that … Jewish people can set in the world, the way of thinking, the way of acting, and I think we have a responsibility to project in the world the way to make the world a better place.”
The hi-tech innovator’s plans, already 2 years in progress, include a Jerusalem regional airport in the Judean desert near Jericho, and underground traffic systems with service to the Old City.