Reporter's Notebook: Tourism as a boost to ME peace

Israeli travel industry officials met last week for strategy sessions with Arab counterparts.

By NATHAN BURSTEIN
June 30, 2007 23:21
Reporter's Notebook: Tourism as a boost to ME peace

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Arabs and Israelis gathered for summits in two well-known Middle East resort areas last week, but despite Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's reported affinity for water slides - just kidding! - only one of them ended poolside, with Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Egyptians getting together to unwind and enjoy a late-night swim. Still unthinkable half a generation ago, this second conference took place on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, with 27 international participants arriving for the fourth meeting of the Tourism4Peace Forum, a non-governmental group primarily sponsored by the Peres Center for Peace. The agenda for the meeting - which took place the same day as last week's regional diplomatic summit in Sharm e-Sheikh - included the usual content for professional conferences, with participants gathering to discuss the organization's by-laws and to seek consensus on a longer-range working plan. But in many ways, this was also a characteristically Middle Eastern affair, delayed on Day One by problems at border crossings and distinguished later by the studiously apolitical conversations of participants. For the Israeli delegation, the first day of the conference proved a fiasco, with the seven-member group - accompanied by two journalists - delayed for nearly three hours at the Allenby Bridge Border Crossing before getting sent back to Israel. (The group eventually crossed into Jordan from Beit Shean, but only after considerable additional driving time, further hold-ups at the border and the near-confiscation of travelers' cell phones by Jordanian customs officials.) Thematically, at least, the Israelis' Allenby Bridge troubles set the stage nicely for what became the conference's central focus - the smooth, dare-we-hope pleasant passage of as many people as possible between the different parts of the region. ("I'm sure our friends the Palestinians face these obstacles everyday," said Michael Nazzal, the chairman of the Jordan Hotel Association Board, in what passed as one of the more political comments of the session.) While conceding their limited ability to influence regional security developments, Tourism4Peace members identified checkpoints and border crossings as one of the main hindrances to the group's overall goal - the promotion of Middle East tourism and peace through shared visits from abroad. Still in its early stages, the organization, made up of hotel promoters and travel agents from Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the West Bank, concluded its Dead Sea summit with a decision to examine problems of movement between member areas, and to lobby the relevant governments based on its findings. But though participants agreed to advocate easier movement for locals as well - if for no other reason than to avoid anti-tourist sentiment at border crossings and checkpoints - the conference also highlighted the role tourism doesn't currently play in promoting peace in the region. While the organization's marketing committee drew up a three-year outreach plan targeted at potential visitors from the far side of the Atlantic and South Korea, no meaningful discussion was devoted to the idea of intra-regional travel and exchange. For all the hospitality of the Jordanian hosts and warm sentiments of the participants as a whole, the meeting ultimately reflected the fractured geography and politics of the region. Though the Palestinian delegates chatted freely and even went swimming with their Israeli counterparts, they pointedly requested - repeatedly - that their names and images not appear in the Israeli media, presumably for fear of what might happen should knowledge of their participation fall into less tolerant hands. An Egyptian whose travel agency oversees the sale of El Al tickets in Cairo spoke knowledgeably about the airline and her own visits to Israel, but visibly tensed up when asked if she'd be interested in getting her own profile in an Israeli newspaper. (Her Cairo ticket sales, she noted separately, are mostly to religious pilgrims traveling to Israel from Egypt, not to Egyptians themselves.) And while a Jordanian hotel manager spoke poignantly about the challenges his country's travel industry has faced over the last seven years - the second intifada, September 11, the Iraq war and terrorist bombings in his own capital - he joined other conference participants in effectively ruling out the suggestion that intra-regional tourism represents a realistic tool for peace or added business opportunity for the area's hotels, airlines and tourist sites. Indeed, with the exception of Saleh Al-Aqrabawiy, the chairman of the Jordanian Handicrafts Producers and Traders Association, conference participants appeared to operate under the assumption that the "Tourism" of the group's name referred not to the people who actually live in this region, but to overseas visitors who can hope to enjoy relatively painless passage from one country to another. (Al-Aqrabawiy, a fluent Hebrew speaker and regular visitor to Jerusalem, insisted on speaking only Arabic or Hebrew to his fellow delegates, telling them that "this [conflict] has to be worked out between our two peoples" before an emphasis can be placed, as through language, on accommodating foreigners.) Mass interest in travel between Jordan and Israel effectively evaporated with Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995, one Jordanian hotelier said, and Gaza, as far as conference participants were concerned, essentially doesn't exist. (And, to be fair, who could blame them?) Practically speaking, at this stage, regional tourism promoters see their best bet in divvying up travelers from abroad, spreading the benefits among themselves and urging foreigners on to other Tourism4Peace member countries where possible. But though low standards may still rule the day, the mere existence of Tourism4Peace, initiated by the Israel Hotel Managers Association in 2004 with a grant from the Peres Center, points to certain undeniable signs of progress. The only espionage taking place at this Arab-Israeli summit appeared to be industrial, with Israelis openly heading off during an afternoon break to look at the new Jordanian hotels standing opposite their own on the far side of the Dead Sea. Held for the first time in an Arab country, the conference featured a Jordanian venue, the Dead Sea Spa Hotel, that marked at its 1990 opening the end of exclusive military use on that side of the Dead Sea. Ongoing building down the road shows that someone, somewhere, sees additional potential for tourism in the area. Delegates couldn't help but acknowledge the political instability that's a perpetual threat to their businesses, but they also entered and exited the conference with the belief that their work is still theirs to manage - and that they'll manage it better by working together. Tourism4Peace concluded "with a feeling of momentum, with the recognition that we can help each other," said Ruth Weiss, a Herzliya-based tourism consultant who works with hotels in Nazareth and Arad. No major treaties were signed, but by-laws were approved and plans for another conference - this one to be held in the Netherlands - were drawn up May delegates remember to pack their swimsuits.

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