“Visit Palestine” says West Bank’s growing alternative tourism industry

Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque (seen in the background) is the burial site of Abraham, but with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and militarized settler presence in Hebron, few tourists make it to see such important sites. (Mamoun Wazwaz/MaanImages)

Palestine should not have problems attracting tourists, with its rich blend of history, religious significance, local culture, as well as the varied and breathtaking scenery. But of course, the political context of the Israeli occupation means that the vast majority of tourists in the “Holy Land” only see Palestinians through the window of a tour bus, as they dash in and out of Bethlehem for a couple of hours.

The occupation, however, has also attracted a different kind of visitor, the “alternative tourist,” who comes to the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), occupied by Israel along with the Gaza Strip since 1967, in order to better understand the conflict, and deliberately go “beyond” the standard pilgrimage or mainstream tourist trip to Israel. These kinds of tourists are much fewer in number, and are typically already sensitized to some degree to the Palestinian situation. Virtually no tourists, if any, go to the Gaza Strip, which has been under Israeli-imposed closure for several years.

The gap between these two types of tourism is large, both in terms of scale and character, but finding a way to somehow bring them together could be crucial in increasing Palestinian tourism potential, a prospect that if done well, could bring important economic, social and political benefits.

Alternative tourism in the West Bank has definitely seen marked improvements and developments since it really began to get off the ground in the 1990s. The pioneers were the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), based in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, who in the aftermath of the first Palestinian intifada realized the positive potential for an infrastructure in Palestine to receive visiting foreigners looking to understand the local reality.

ATG is still going, and has been joined by other organizations pursuing variations on the theme. At least anecdotally, there has also been a gradual expansion of those drawn to the kinds of programs offered by Palestinian alternative tourism groups. Sarah Irving has had experience working with both ATG, and also the UK-based Olive Coop, and described the difference she sees now, compared to some years ago:

“Because ATG is now listed in Lonely Planet, they have flyers in Jerusalem, these kinds of things, they’re starting to get people who are just hanging out, or backpacking. Just recently I took my dad on a day tour of Bethlehem and Hebron. In our group there was one person who had a pre-existing interest, but the other two knew nothing about the situation here — including a Scottish guy who had just picked up some cheap flights to Israel, was even staying in West Jerusalem, and this was his attempt to find out more about where he’d come.”

This seems to suggest that groups like ATG, if not quite making substantial inroads, are at least succeeding in attracting more than just the “usual suspects.” Ayman Abu Zulof, marketing manager at ATG, who admits that the target is “to try and reach normal tourists,” said that “it’s interesting how things are developing.” Abu Zulof believes that changes are afoot: “There is a demand from pilgrims, when they know about other possibilities — when you talk to the grassroots, there’s a demand.” He cites as an example a recent inquiry he had from a private travel agency on behalf of a group of Catholic pilgrims from France.

But there are significant challenges which have both slowed the development of tourism in Palestine, and threaten to stymie efforts for the sector to realize more of its potential. One of the biggest problems is Palestine’s image. For any destination this is of crucial importance, and Palestine has suffered from the one-dimensional impressions given by the Western media (encouraged by Israeli propaganda), of the occupied territories as an anarchic, dangerous, nest of terrorists.

When Khuloud Deibes, the Palestinian Authority’s Minister for Tourism, assumed her post in April 2007 in the short-lived Palestinian “unity government,” The Jerusalem Post noted that she would be responsible for tourism “in an entity that is not independent, has an ever-worsening image as a dangerous place to visit, and lacks territorial continuity or control over its borders.” Indeed, Palestinian “sovereignty” is a fragmented facade, while the same physical obstacles that make everyday Palestinian life a humiliating misery, are also inconveniences that many mainstream tourists are unwilling to accept for even an afternoon.

The combination of a negative image, plus the physical barriers, means that most tourists stay within Israel’s pre-1967 occupation boundaries or perhaps in a hotel in Jerusalem, and simply visit the Bethlehem area as one more item on a busy day’s itinerary. Thus there is little money spent in the local hotels and restaurants, and the only chance that Palestinians have to benefit in any way from the visiting tourists is through selling expensive, heavily-commissioned gifts and souvenirs.

This is all in stark contrast to an Israeli tourism industry supported by an active and resourceful government ministry, a sector with substantial funds to invest in advertising campaigns, and with well-developed contacts with crucial markets such as Western churches. Israel receives an estimated 95 percent or more of “Holy Land” tourism, and Abu Zulof highlighted how many visitors’ itineraries are shaped by Israeli political concerns:

“Why do most pilgrims go to Masada? It has no Christian significance at all — but it is useful propaganda [for Israel]. Why do people not go to the mosque in Hebron, even though it is the burial site of Abraham? Because Israel does not want people to be scandalized by what they see there with the settlers and the occupation.”

Masada is not the only example of the relationship between tourism, Zionist propaganda and Israeli expansionism. In the occupied East Jerusalem village of Silwan, Israel has announced plans to demolish dozens of Palestinian homes to make way for the City of David project, a Jewish-themed park that settlers market as offering the visitor an “exciting tour” and “breathtaking” views — “the only place on earth where the only guidebook needed is the Bible itself.”

The future of Palestinian tourism is partly dependent on factors out of the hands of those Palestinians working in the sector in either the Palestinian Authority or private agencies. But there are also things that Palestinians can be doing regardless of political developments.

Using the Internet for marketing and publicity is surely a tool that must be better exploited, since here is a realm where the Israelis cannot throw up obstacles and checkpoints. There are already well presented, smart websites, such as ABS Tourism’s portal, www.visitpalestine.ps, and also www.travelpalestine.ps. But more could be done, particularly in terms of developing advertising campaigns that target specific groups such as Christian pilgrimages, or young backpackers.

There is also a need to develop other places in Palestine apart from the Bethlehem area. Nablus and its environs, for example, boasts the likes of Sebastia and the Old City itself, but the tourist presence is nonexistent. The restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation are a very real impediment, but so also is the absence of any real infrastructure. A local resident working in a travel agency told me that if tourists spent just one day in Nablus, it would make a huge difference to the city.

Hebron, Ramallah, Jericho — all of these places offer a different atmosphere and features of historical and cultural interest, but are almost completely off the radar for the average tourist or pilgrim. There is also the need for more care to be taken with sites of archaeological and historical interest — in some cases, there needs to be complete restoration. Solomon’s Pool, in the Bethlehem area, could be a big attraction for the visitors already drawn to the area; but it lacks any facilities for visitors, and suffers from pollution and neglect.

As one recent article on the resilience of “religious tourism” in a time of economic depression put it, “virtually all tourism in Palestine is religious-based.” This should be a cause for optimism for the Palestinian tourist industry, as there are increasing numbers of churches outside Palestine wishing to express solidarity with the Palestinians and do something practical to help. The demand for “ethical” pilgrimages is thus only likely to increase. Palestine is able to offer Christian tourists the chance to meet the “living stones” whose lineage in Palestine and religious tradition goes back centuries.

But there is an important caveat about mainstream tourism, according to George Rishmawi, coordinator at the Siraj Center in Beit Sahour. Rishmawi explained that across the world, mainstream tourists have “no interest in the locals,” or local political context, and indeed, often bring “pollution and ignorance.” What positive difference would “mainstream tourism” really make in Palestine, he asked. “Go to one of these big souvenir shops in Bethlehem — most of the stuff is made in China,” he added.

Deibes who still serves as tourism minister in the Western-recognized Ramallah government is on record as saying that she wants “to develop new opportunities consistent with global trends, including ecotourism, youth tourism, and health tourism.” While this sounds admirable, ultimately it may be unrealistic to expect that a Palestinian Authority (PA) propped up by donor money and stricken by political tensions will be able or willing to invest money and resources into developing tourism.

Given the limitations of the PA’s tourism ministry, there is a big role to be played by publicity, whether media appearances, word-of-mouth recommendations, or Internet-based campaigning. Rishmawi commented that after Australian television showed a documentary on a tourist initiative he helped run in 2000, there were around 20 group bookings as a result. Yet, as Ayman complained, you can still hear many local Palestinian guides and agencies saying that “We don’t need to market the Holy Land, it markets itself.”

Rishmawi has been involved with two initiatives in the last decade that brought tourists on walks through the West Bank — the Nativity Trail from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and the new Abraham’s Path Initiative whose route is intended to ultimately go from Cyprus to Hebron. “We will be able to attract more and more people based on how creative our programs are,” he said, before optimistically adding: “I know there are many people who if they knew what they could do here, and that their presence would make a difference, they would do it.”

Ben White is a freelance journalist and writer whose articles have appeared in the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’, The Electronic Intifada, the New Statesman, and many others. His book, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide (Pluto Press), will be published this summer. He can be contacted at ben A T benwhite D O T org D O T uk.