Anyone for golf? Work will soon begin on a luxury golf course on Israel’s beautiful and historic Mount Arbel.It was when the bottom fell out of the US real estate market in the early 1990s, that Joseph Bernstein first got the idea to open a luxury golf course in Israel.

It wasn’t an overnight revelation, more of a gradual process of discovery. Bernstein, an Israeli who had immigrated to America as a child, had been involved in a number of large real estate developments in New York through his company, Americas Partners, including the $500 million development Americas Tower, the US headquarters of Bank Hapoalim and world headquarters of PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

When the market tanked in 1991, he decided to forget about work for a while and take up golf. He spent the next year devoting himself to the sport. He traveled widely in pursuit of his new interest and one day found himself teeing off on Israel’s only golf course at Caesarea.

“I looked about me and realized that Israel is a prime golf market because of the weather,” Bernstein tells ISRAEL21c, from his home in Florida. “The country has great weather nine months of the year, and could attract snow birds (people who live in cold climates) from all over Europe and the east coast of America, and yet there’s only one golf course. I started to see enormous potential in building golf resorts here.”

More than 15 years later, Bernstein’s dream is about to become a reality after news that the Israel Land Authority has given his development company, Israel Resorts & Clubs, the final agreement necessary to develop a new five star golf resort on the stunning Mount Arbel overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

The new $150 million resort, which should open in 2011, will have an 18-hole championship golf course sculpted by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., a renowned golf course designer. There will be social, golf and residence club programs, with cultural, spiritual, sports and touring activities organized for members.

The development, on land owned by the agricultural farming cooperative Moshav Kfar Hittim, will cater to between 600-900 people in large suites and villas. It will be home to a world-class spa, a culinary program, an organic farm, a winery, a beach club, and a tennis academy.

With an eye to its location – Mount Arbel is the Galilee’s most prominent landmark, with panoramic views, and cliffs rising 400 meters to a large plateau that includes the vast Mount Arbel Nature Reserve – Bernstein intends the resort to be environmentally friendly.

It will be built to LEED specifications, he asserts, using natural building materials. Guests will eat organic food. An $8 million water treatment plant to accommodate the needs of the project has already been completed.

“We intend to build everything with attention to protecting the environment and nature,” asserts Bernstein, president of Israel Resorts & Clubs. “This is one of the most gorgeous sites in Israel and we want to do everything in keeping with it. Today the site is used for agriculture. The resort – which falls short of the peak – will bring beautiful green golf courses that will be surrounded by the nature reserve.”

Bernstein believes the new Mount Arbel development will help transform tourism to the Galilee region. “The Galilee is a very beautiful part of Israel but it gets few visitors. The Jewish travelers who come tend to focus on Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat. There’s strong Christian tourism, but this is low end and people don’t stay. They come in by bus and leave at the end of the day.”

Tiberius, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, is the main resort town of the region, but as Bernstein admits, it’s pretty run down. “It caters to the budget conscious,” he says.

He believes part of the problem is that up to now tourism in the north of Israel has been based on a ‘take what comes’ attitude. “Tourists are only offered low-end facilities so they may come once, but they won’t come back. We have to bring them back with the things they like – golf, the beach, culture, the vacation experience,” says Bernstein. “The Sea of Galilee could be a huge vacation area and our resort could really spark it.”

With this in mind, he says he is determined to make the new Mount Arbel golf course one of the best links courses in the world, so that it can host international golf tournaments.

The lure of golf should not be underestimated, adds Bernstein. In the US alone, there are 40-50 million golfers. “It’s not a rich man’s game like it used to be,” he says. “Today everyone is playing it. America has 10,000 golf courses, even Sweden has 500. Israel has one.”

With approval to build now signed and sealed, Bernstein is looking for financing. The New York firm, Cushman & Wakefield Sonnenblick Goldman has been engaged to raise money. This is expected to be finalized in the second half of the year, and building will begin shortly afterwards.

The development, which will employ between 300-400 staff, is designed as a club, where visitors pay an annual membership fee. Memberships will be offered initially in England, France, Israel, and the US.

Now Bernstein, who visits Israel every month – often with his six children – is planning similar golf resorts elsewhere in Israel. His goal is to build three or four at various locations across the country. He is already tying up a deal with Beit Nir Kibbutz located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Initial approval has been granted, and Bernstein is now awaiting approval from the Ministry of Tourism and the Land Authority.

“The Mount Arbel resort will dramatically and immediately change the image of the Galilee. It will get people to focus on this area. It’s a whole new direction and will have a profound long term impact,” he says.