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eTN Executive Talk: Palestinian tourism minister one-on-one

Written by editor

For the first time ever, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities participated in an American international travel fair during the inaugural World Religious Travel Expo 2008 held October

For the first time ever, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities participated in an American international travel fair during the inaugural World Religious Travel Expo 2008 held October 29-November 1st in Orlando, Florida.

The special event highlighted by the Palestinian delegation comes within the framework of the strengthened twin relationship between the cities of Bethlehem and Orlando. The territory has experienced increased inbound travels widely seen in the cities of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Jericho – the result of the new Palestinian leaders’ and the international community’s efforts in reassuring stability, security and safety in the cities of Palestine.

How? Hard to believe? Unfortunately for a culturally-rich destination such as Palestine, attracting and rebuilding tourism have become a very hard struggle, let alone the number one means of survival it has been deprived of since October 2000. Since the establishment of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in 1994, work has begun with developing tourism to Palestine.

Creating the infrastructure, training facilities, promoting investment and developing / diversifying the Palestinian product as well as promoting it abroad were key issues. Within a short period, international markets got a glimpse of the destination’s regional potential. Palestine was then back on the international tourism map as a unique and exciting get-away with a rich cultural and religious heritage. In the given ‘boom’ time, tourism contributed US $350 million to the national annual revenue and provided 12000 job opportunities. Investment in the tourism sector increased remarkably and in the third quarter of year 2000, the number of tourists reached one million with 350,000 tourists spending at least 4 nights in the Palestinian Hotels that had registered a total inventory of 6000 rooms.

After the Intifada sparked, strikes on the tourism sector commenced and since, only escalated despite international efforts to curb violence. Palestinian tourism has suffered a reversal of fortune almost instantaneously. Losses from tourism’s gross revenue amounted to $670 million. Unemployment in the sector peaked to 90 percent.

We asked the current Palestinian minister of tourism and antiquities, Dr. Khouloud Daibes, was appointed only three months back, for an exclusive chat with eTN.

eTN: During these troubled times, how has Palestine managed to increase inbound traffic?
Minister Khouloud Daibes: Inbound tourism increased by 120% compared to the same period last year. We expect tourism arrivals to exceed 1 M this year, as in year 2000.

In normal situations, we just don’t promote the Holy Land but all its sites, including religious and cultural heritage sites like the Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Old City of Jerusalem, the footsteps of the Prophets, Jericho and all the settlements.

eTN: 2000 was good before the Intifada, right? How about today?
Daibes: With what is going on in the region, it makes it difficult to promote it as a unique and safe destination especially because the media does not reflect the image of Palestine.

Pilgrimage and tourism have been around for over 2000 years. Pilgrims have been coming for years to the Holy Land. Tourism is not a new industry for us. People are used to tourists and catering to them. The infrastructure is already there. Until today, I can say we’ve been able to resume tourism activities despite what’s going on. In fact, we’re approaching the 1 million visitor count to date. Compared with previous years, we’ve seen substantial increases which give us hope that we’ll be able to keep this momentum as well as open new markets like East Europe and Russia (which is now ranked first on our list of visitors). There is a huge demand currently from pilgrims who’ve been waiting to visit for such a long time. We’re trying to respond to that.

eTN: Are the million guests day-tourists or overnight visitors?
Daibes: They usually stay for more than one night. For us, they are more important than others. Our overnight visitors help the sector create more jobs and generate tourism income. Previous trends, some two years back, saw visitors going to the holy sites, the Church and they would leave. This is something we would like to see change in the visitations.

eTN: Has it been more difficult for Palestine to grow tourism after the Intifida and the more recent Gaza disengagement with airports and major access closed permanently?
Daibes: Since the demand is high, we travel around the world to network with our partners and interested pilgrims who have waited so long. We’ve invited a lot of officials such as Pres. Bush and European presidents and foreign ministers from all over the world to see and understand that Palestine is safe and secure as a destination, and that no tourists have been harmed before. World leaders have sent a message from there that Palestine is ready to receive tourists.

We cannot promote the whole Palestinian territory so we’re promoting the triangle of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho where we feel comfortable about safety issues, accessibility and freedom of movement. We still need to do a lot of work to extend tourism all over the territory depending on the outcome of political negotiations with Israel. We always try to be innovative and creative to promote tourism under the current occupation. We hope that through tourism, we can help map the road to peace. We see tourism as a tool for peace-making.

Tourism is considered as an essential resource for the Palestinian community and the national income. It is an important tool for the world to acknowledge the realities in Palestine and its people as a tourism destination in a peaceful place that looks forward to the establishment of an independent state. Tourism plays a fundamental role in the Middle East process through enhancing the level of economy and encouraging cooperation among the different parts.