In the city of Haifa, the terraces are much welcomed, and promise to be a boon for tourism

HAIFA, Israel - On the first day that a special telephone line was opened in late May to receive reservations for public tours of the newly opened garden terraces on Mount Carmel, operators received some 7,000 bookings - and callers waited for as long as two hours to make them.

Such is the degree of public interest in visiting the terraces, which have been proclaimed as the "eighth wonder of the world" by Haifa's mayor and received extensive publicity in the Israeli news media.

"We know that there is a lot of built-up anticipation on the part of Israelis and foreign tourists to visit the new terraces," said Douglas Samimi-Moore, director of the Baha'i International Community's Office of Public Information here, which will oversee the guided tour program.

Even before the special reservations line was operational, the Baha'i World Centre received many calls from people asking when they could visit, said Mr. Samimi-Moore.

A public opinion survey done in February and March indicated that some 95 percent of Haifa residents intend to visit the new terraces "in the near future" - and that an astounding 75 percent of those surveyed throughout Israel had similar plans.

While the terraces and associated gardens are sacred in character, Baha'is have always intended that they be shared with the world at large. Accordingly, like other Baha'i Shrines and holy places in the Haifa-Acre region, the terraces will be open to the public with no admission fee.

Because of the great interest in the project, however, it was decided to establish a program of pre-reserved guided tours, said Mr. Samimi-Moore. These free tours will be the only way that visitors can actually walk through the terraces from end to end. Drop-in visitors will be able to enjoy three special viewing areas located at the base, the peak and roughly in the middle of the terraces.

In the face of the anticipated demand for visits, the Centre reached out to the Haifa Tourist Board and to the Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center for assistance with the logistics of organizing the tour program.

The Haifa Tourist Board will manage the reservations system, which will begin as a telephone-only system and then expand later to an on-line system. The Beit Hagefen Center, which already sponsors a wide range of cross-cultural tours and events in Haifa, has been given the task of recruiting and training tour guides.

The city of Haifa, indeed, has made the project a centerpiece of its efforts to promote tourism in the region. The city has worked closely with the project's architect and his staff throughout the construction phase and it has linked to the project the renovation of the historic German Templer Colony district, which runs along Ben Gurion Avenue from the base of Mount Carmel to the sea.

"We consider the gardens a gift to us," said Moshe Tzur, managing director of the Haifa Tourist Board. "We hope they will become one of the main tourist attractions in the world."

For its part, Beit Hagefen is bringing in both Jewish and Arab guides, mostly drawn from the students of Haifa University. The first batch of guides, for example, is composed of about 30 Jewish students and 25 Arab students, said Hani El Far, Beit Hagefen's deputy general director.

"Our aim as an organization is to convey the importance of the coming together of every community in Haifa, Jewish, Arab, Baha'i and others," said Mr. El Far, explaining why Beit Hagefen has taken on this project. "And these aims are parallel to the aims of the Baha'i community."

People wishing to reserve a place on a guided tour of the terraces should call, in Israel, 04-831-3131.