The West Bank. Three words that are so mired in the current geopolitical reality that it’s hard to think of them in any other way. And, given the turmoil of the past year, there is no shortage of political associations. From the construction freeze and removal of checkpoints to international boycotts of produce grown by Jewish settlers and almost daily protests against the route of the security fence, it’s as if no aspect of daily life over the Green Line is immune to controversy. And yet the approaching summer season, with its blazing Mediterranean sun, has spotlighted one area which, despite its potentially profound political significance, has thus far remained under the radar: tourism.
Tourism has traditionally been a relatively low-key industry in the West Bank. The first and second intifadas certainly played their part, with the threat of violence continuing to scare off prospective visitors. And no doubt, widespread ideological reservations both locally and abroad have also had an effect.
But external factors alone are not entirely the cause of minimal tourism to the West Bank. There has been long-term neglect in trying to change the image of the region through outreach to the average, apolitical traveler.
“We’re not consistently making contact with foreign travel agents,” says Nira Yaron of the Tourism Authority of Gush Etzion, a group of Jewish villages south of Jerusalem, in the southern West Bank. “We just don’t have enough people to actively do that.”
Indeed, the tourism bureau in Gush Etzion, the only official Jewish tourism bureau in the West Bank – another is being planned for Efrat – suffers from a chronic shortfall of money and is therefore consistently showing its cracks. The Web site for Gush Etzion tourism is not entirely intuitive and, in some places, outdated. The tourism telephone hot line is not always manned; and with only two full-time employees, the bureau is simply understaffed.
But despite the disadvantages of funding problems, past violence and political uncertainties – and in part because of them – the two staff members are now more determined than ever to forge ahead.
“We don’t want what happened to Gush Katif to happen here,” says Yaron, who blames the 2005 disengagement partly on a lack of awareness among the general Israeli population – an awareness that could have been rectified by paying more attention to tourism.
While acknowledging that tourism comes in “ebbs and flows” to the West Bank depending on the security situation in the region, Yaron terms the present as a “flow.” And her assertion is backed by an ever-expanding list of new and improved attractions.
One such site is Herodion. Far from a recent discovery, the ancient country palace of King Herod has been open to the public for decades. But according to Natan Marcus, the director of the site, Herodion has been experienced an indisputable boom over the past two years.
“Two years ago we had about 50,000 visitors. Last year we had 70,000, and this year we’re expecting at least 100,000,” he says.
His prediction is based on a number of factors, not the least of which is improved security throughout Judea and Samaria. But equally important, he says, are two extraordinary discoveries that were recently excavated near the apex of the mountain palace. The first is a beautiful amphitheater in excellent condition. The second is the tomb of King Herod himself.
Once excavation work is completed and access ramps are put in place, there is no doubt, he says, that visits will spike. In the meantime, beginning in less than a month, tourists will be able to enjoy a newly renovated visitors’ center, complete with a café and gift shop.
Elsewhere throughout Gush Etzion, similar renovations at established
tourist hubs are taking place. Kfar Etzion, for example, a kibbutz that
for years has served as the first stop for the West Bank tourist
interested in learning about the history of Jewish settlement in the
area, has recently added new tourist accommodations. The units provide
a comfortable base from which families or individuals can explore the
Emet Habiyar, a series of underground tunnels that were vital in
funneling water to ancient Jerusalem thousands of years ago, has also
been greatly improved. Thanks largely to three brothers who live on the
site and tend to its every need, the location now serves as a beautiful
escape from the summer heat, complete with a Beduin tent café and an
underground cave that, along with providing access to the tunnel hikes,
doubles as a reception area that can be rented for special occasions.
Gavna, a cottage-like restaurant that for years has gone unrivaled in
Gush Etzion – for its ambience and fine cuisine – has also not let
success turn to complacency. In the past year, the proprietors have
built a garden area and upper patio that can be rented out for parties,
weddings or bar/bat mitzvas. Furthermore, beginning in late June and
continuing through August, the establishment will host an ethnic music
night every Thursday, featuring local bands.
But perhaps the most intriguing developments are those that have taken
place quietly without being touted by the tourism bureau. For instance,
most Israelis know the term “tzimmerim,” or guest houses, as
attractions of the North, where families can enjoy luxury
accommodations in the mountains at reasonable prices. Well, unbeknown
to many, tzimmer facilities are budding all over Gush Etzion –
unbeknown because there is no advertisement about them by the tourism
bureau or the guest houses themselves.
“It’s more of a word of mouth thing,” says Yaron. “We hope people will
soon realize that they don’t have to travel all the way to the North to
experience the nature of the country.”
Another hidden treasure is the growing number of mom-and-pop wineries
and breweries in the region, providing some of the finest spirits to
come out of Israel. They are so hidden, in fact, that one of the
tastiest among them, the Lone Tree Brewery, was unknown to the tourism
bureau until its wheat and oatmeal beers were served at Gavna during
the writing of this article.
“I never even heard of this,” said Yaron as she sipped one of the three rich – almost creamy – options.
But that is not her fault. Those producing the jewels of Gush Etzion
have yet to adopt the kind of marketing strategy that would includes
contacting the local tourism bureau to ensure exposure.
But then again, as Ben Tal, one of the co-owners of Gavna, says, perhaps that’s part of the charm.
“We’re trying to create a Gush Etzion culture,” he says. “And this is part of it.”