Palestine’s besieged West Bank is beating the Israeli blockade to emerge as a growing, if unlikely, tourist destination.
Heartened by a doubling in visitor numbers last year and desperate for inward investment, the Palestinian government is hoping to attract adventurous tourists to marvel at the Holy Land’s ancient monuments and its more ominous modern constructions, including Israel’s “antiterror” wall and Yasser Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah.
At the West Bank’s first international development conference in Bethlehem earlier this month, which showcased projects valued at the equivalent of £1 billion, the Palestinian National Authority now launched its first tourism website, www.visit-palestine.com.
Palestine is unable to promote itself as an independent destination due to Israeli controls at the airport and security. Visitors to Bethlehem have to make a daunting journey through a military checkpoint and the concrete security barrier – now 280 miles long – that Israel began building in 2002.
The Palestinians, however, are optimistic. Yousef Daher, managing director of ABS Tourism, said:
“The opportunities are many, with the richness of destinations. There is potential for new investment. Ramallah experienced overbooking because Bethlehem and Jerusalem could not cope with the movement over April and into May, while Gaza will be a great tourist opportunity when the time is right.”
Speaking in her Bethlehem office, beneath one of the ubiquitous portraits of Yasser Arafat, Khouloud Daibes, Palestine’s new minister of tourism and antiquities, is already celebrating early success in her post.
Mrs Daibes, a senior figure in Bethlehem’s dwindling Arab-Christian community, said: “We have been receiving tourists or pilgrims for at least 2,000 years, so we have got a long tradition and much experience and infrastructure to host tourists.”
Christmas tourists to Bethlehem tripled to 60,000 last year, while government figures say the total number of guests at Palestinian hotels more than doubled in 2007 to 315,866.
Mrs Daibes added: “We want to put Palestine back on the map, using Bethlehem as an axis to break tourist isolation. Today, we are concentrating on the triangle of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho, which is accessible for tourists.
“Every month we see tourist numbers increase. This gives us hope that there is a high demand.”
She has already successfully lobbied several governments to lift security warnings for travellers to Bethlehem, and boosted advertising in the UK, Spain, Italy, and the former Soviet bloc.
She said: “We want to be equal partners with Israel and share the Holy Land. But currently there is a very unfair distribution of the benefit of tourism on the Israeli side, with 95 per cent of tourists staying in Israel, leaving us just 5 per cent.”
Due to continued Israeli restrictions on movement for both tourists and locals alike to historic cities such as Nablus, Hebron and Jericho, Mrs Daibes is now promoting other locations, including a desert spa outside the ancient walls of Jericho and the tomb of Yasser Arafat in downtown Ramallah.
She stressed: “While religious tourism will remain our most popular type of tourism, we want to develop new opportunities consistent with global trends, including ecotourism, youth tourism, and health tourism. We are a small country with very diverse landscape and climate and we have great potential for new niches.”
The increase in tourists is starting to be reflected in Bethlehem’s bustling souks, shops, restaurants and hotels.
One hotel manager said: “This is as busy as I can remember. We have Poles, Russians, Germans, Italians, and Spanish and we welcome them all with open arms.”
One member of the city’s tourist police force said tourists arrive “scared and twitchy” but relax and enjoy their holiday after a matter of hours.
He said: “The Israeli and world media say Palestine is not safe for tourists, but they don’t tell the facts – that Palestinians want peace and security and we are very friendly and welcoming.
“The most important thing for us is for tourists to come and stay in Bethlehem and see everything and to understand what we are like and what we want.”