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Israel: We need to open the door to Palestinian tourists

Hundreds of people from across the globe descended on Jerusalem for the first annual International Tourism Security Summit, as speakers and participants discussed strategies to protect travelers from the scourge of terrorism.

“It was the right time because there was such a curiosity to listen and exchange views and ideas,” Ilanit Melchior, Director of Tourism at the Jerusalem Development Authority, related to The Media Line. “By holding this conference, we are not trying to hide from the issue [of terrorism] but rather to put it on the map.”

Israel has been afflicted by its fair share of terrorism, perhaps most notably the 2000-2003 Second Intifada, characterized by Palestinian suicide bombings on buses and in cafes throughout the country. Despite a major drop-off in tourism thereafter, the Jewish state in 2017 set a record for incoming travelers, with an estimated 3.6 million visitors.

Even though Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians continues, one of the keynote speakers at the conference surprised attendees by suggesting that the nation could, somewhat counter-intuitively, reduce terrorism by promoting a little more tourism from the West Bank.

“We need to open the door to Palestinian tourists,” Brig. Gen. (ret.) Avi Bnayahu, a former Israeli army spokesman who currently runs a travel consulting firm, contended to The Media Line. “For example, there are many Palestinian couples that want to honeymoon in Israel, whether to the Dead Sea or Eilat. Why should they go to Germany instead? Tourism is a great way to get rid of the negativity and move forward.”

On a macro level, a recently-published State Department report shows there were 8,584 terrorist attacks worldwide last year, resulting in the deaths of about 14,000 people.

While most attacks occurred in war-torn countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, their incidence in relatively stable nations ranging from France to Turkey to Thailand has created a perception of danger that impacts on a tourist’s decision-making process.

“It’s a very old image distortion that exists not only in the Middle East,” Dirk Glaesser, Director of Sustainable Development at the United Nations Tourism Organization, stressed to The Media Line. “It is important that marketing techniques are used in order to make clear the exact destination that was affected and, as a corollary, those that were not.”

Indeed, one of the central themes of the summit was the importance of providing individuals with accurate details where and when attacks do occur, in order to dispel the notion that because one specific location may be turbulent so too must others nearby.

“When Chinese see the world map and consider how large their country is compared to some in the Middle East, if there’s a problem in Syria they think it spills over to the whole region, including Israel even if nothing happened there,” Roy Graff, a Managing Director at Dragon Trail Interactive, a company that facilitates tourism from China, explained to The Media Line.

There is, however, generally more than meets the eye when it comes to the dangers of visiting one place or another. Therefore, getting correct information into the hands of tourists might not only save lives but also provide peace of mind to vacationers that choosing to venture to sometimes turbulent paradises.