Sustainable tourism or sustaining Israel’s occupation?

Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Bethlehem each year but few stay in its hotels. (Luay Sababa/MaanImages)

With a decidedly upbeat tone, the Sustainable Rural Tourist initiative was launched with a two-day conference at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank last month. Organizers, panelists and Palestinian Authority government officials appeared optimistic and celebratory as they addressed the project’s aim of establishing an independent, thriving rural tourism industry in the occupied West Bank. According to the facilitators, this bourgeoning private sector may serve as a step towards building an independent Palestinian state. However, in light of Israel’s occupation, the implementation of anything “sustainable” appears uncertain, if not dubious.

Dr. Kholoud Daibes, Minister of Tourism for the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA), has been outspoken in her visions for building up tourism in the West Bank. At the conference she declared that “Achieving the project of the state must be done in combination with developing rural tourism.”

Sustainable rural tourism seeks to tap into the abundance of historical, natural and religious attractions throughout the occupied West Bank that have yet to be tailored for tourist consumption. The theory is that by investing in the local private sector in the oft-neglected parts of the West Bank countryside, rural tourism would generate much needed work and income for residents, therefore invigorating an independent Palestinian economy.

One panelist at the conference, Hijazi Eid, a veteran West Bank tour guide and director of Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil (Abraham’s Path), which offers walking tours throughout the occupied West Bank, called for the “transfer of ownership” of tourism. Admonishing against too much control by foreign donors, such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the governments of Germany and Japan, Eid stressed that tourism must belong to the local population.

Indeed, there are tangible reasons to pour hope into tourism as a viable financial asset to Palestine right now. According to Saeb Bamya, the Palestinian Coordinator for the AIX Group, a Palestinian-Israeli Economic research institution, tourism to the occupied West Bank is at an all time high since the occupation began after the June 1967 War and is expected to reach one million tourists this year. Bamya stated that “I can assure you that tourism is one of the most important private sectors in Palestine. I believe this sector would boom in a quick time, if we had a normal situation.”

Bamya’s statement strikes at the heart of what has enabled the sort of distorted hope exhibited at the conference: a sense of normalcy in a completely abnormal situation. The occupation of the West Bank, while ostensibly allowing economic growth, has nonetheless truncated Palestine’s ability to develop independently. Furthermore, in light of Israel’s fragmentation of the West Bank’s physical landscape with intimidating and inconvenient checkpoints, and its refusal to cooperate with the PA to help develop its tourism sector, the “sustainable rural tourism” initiative appears more insincere than a saving grace.

Dawood Hamoudeh, from the Stop the Wall Coalition, is deeply critical of promoting any project that is rooted in the framework of the occupation as “sustainable.” Emphasizing Israel’s inherent supremacy when it comes to capturing tourism to the area, Hamoudeh argues that the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism is unable to keep any promises while under occupation.

At present, Palestinians living under occupation are themselves cut off from accessing some of the most beautiful and significant parts of the West Bank. For example, overcrowded checkpoints make accessing Jerusalem or Bethlehem excruciating and sometimes impossible.

According to Hamoudeh, domestic tourism in Palestine represents more than half of the tourism activity in the occupied West Bank. Hamoudeh believes the PA must address the disabling effect the Israeli occupation has on the movement of Palestinians if it is serious about increasing tourism: “If the PA cannot find an alternative to this, by removing checkpoints, for example, then half the tourist industry will be paralyzed. It is about the occupation and the restriction of movements to Palestinians.”

While some panelists at the Birzeit conference acknowledged the disadvantages the Israeli occupation presents to tourism, there was a gaping silence over the real and perhaps insurmountable impediments that exist.

Referring to the occupied West Bank, Minister of Tourism Daibes boldly asserted that “We will promote Palestine as an independent tourism site and attraction, despite the restrictions of the occupation and deliberate destruction of our cultural heritage sites.”

According to Bamya, Israel has a specific political interest in preventing a prosperous tourism sector, or any private sector, in Palestine: strengthening the Palestinian economy would bolster the PA’s position during negotiations with Israel.

Furthermore, Bamya continued to cast doubt on a viable possibility of reviving the local populations’ tourism sector without significant foreign investment: “Palestine is receiving a huge amount of money compared to its [Gross Domestic Product]. Donor money is substituting for survival, instead of being used for investment and development.”

Hamoudeh, however, believes that Palestinians are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to capturing tourism to the region. At present, tourists interested in the attraction of the West Bank are more likely to take day trips to places such as Bethlehem, but spend the bulk of their money in Israel. According to reports by the PA’s Ministry of Tourism and the Bureau of Statistics, in 2007 509,000 tourists came to Bethlehem, but only 88,000 stayed in the city’s hotels.

Furthermore, Israel is in the midst of a huge public relations campaign in the West to promote tourism to the country — its recent induction into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) attests to its concerted effort to normalize and pacify its image.

Hamoudeh cites Israel’s appropriation of tourism in occupied East Jerusalem as emblematic of its general domination of and control over the tourism sector. Pointing to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, Hamoudeh explains that the current order to demolish 88 Palestinians homes is to accommodate a plan that will allure tourists to the “City of David” archaeological park. In addition, in the bordering Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood there are three large Israeli hotels — or settlements — and near the Har Gilo settlement on the way to Bethlehem there are currently 13 hotels under construction. According to the Israeli Municipality of Tourism, Israel plans to have 32,000 hotel rooms by 2025 in East Jerusalem, and hopes to reach 10 million tourists by the same year.

It is difficult not to see a distinct similarity between Daibes’ promotion of independent tourism and the state-building project of the PA’s appointed Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, which has been criticized as a mirage of real independence and reliant on foreign aid for the illusion of economic growth. Both depend upon maintaining the occupation and its savage economic reality for the Palestinians.

As Hamoudeh explains, “What has been happening in the last four years is a media game to say that the Fayyad government is better than the Hamas government [in Gaza]. Because if you look at the other projects — like the industrial project in the Jordan [River] Valley — they have been talking about them for three years, but nothing has happened on the ground.”

While the goal of developing tourism, in particular rural tourism, may have at its origins socially benevolent intentions, it cannot transcend the same economic barriers that the Israeli occupation creates for all aspects of the Palestinian economy.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in the West Bank and works for Palestine Monitor. She can be reached at charlottesilver A T gmail D O T com.