'The Pillars of Civilization Tour'

Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority will jointly promote Middle East tourism.

hirchson conference 298 (photo credit: Sasson Tiran)
hirchson conference 298
(photo credit: Sasson Tiran)
Hundreds of kilometers away from the ruins of burnt synagogues, claims about the continued occupation of the Gaza Strip, and warnings of harsh retaliation for any future terrorist attacks, the atmosphere between the tourism ministers of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority was full of goodwill in this isolated Red Sea resort, where they met on Wednesday to discuss a joint marketing campaign to promote tourism and peace in the region. "We had a wonderful meeting and a wonderful talk. It is the first time we are meeting together to discuss tourism, not terrorism," said Israeli Tourism Minister Avraham Hirchson, who initiated the idea of the multilateral conference three months ago. "The mood, the attitude and the willingness was very good and there is much reason to be optimistic," said Egyptian Tourism Minister Ahmed el-Maghraby. The PA's Zyad Bandak and Jordan's Aliaa Bouran expressed similar sentiments. Their first act of cooperation will be to work with the World Tourism Organization to lobby the US and other governments to soften their travel warnings on the Middle East, which make insurance companies reluctant to cover trips to the region. However, despite the smiles, mutual praise and relaxed atmosphere the Israeli delegation took their ties off soon after they saw that el-Maghraby wasn't wearing one the four sides didn't sign the joint accord that they planned to sign. This was because of a disagreement between Hirchson and Bandak over whether to use the Paris Agreement from the late 1990s as a basis for cooperation. "The Palestinian Tourism Minister wanted to follow the Paris Agreement but we are not sure what is in it, so we didn't agree," said Hirchson, adding that he will examine the pact and clarify his position. Nevertheless, the four sides intend to carry out all the other proposals that were in the unsigned agreement. One of these is to target tourists from the Americas, the Far East and India who are unwilling to make the long-haul flight to visit just one destination but may be persuaded by a package holiday to all four, a trip that Hirchson has called "The Pillars of Civilization Tour." "For the first time in history, you can visit all of our glorious sites in one visit, with one ticket, at one low price. Discover the magic of our cultures, out people, our histories, our hospitality," says a Tourism Ministry prospectus. To achieve this vision, the ministers have agreed to meet once every three months and the next conference is due to take place in the Palestinian Authority. They also plan to stage joint press conferences at international conventions and set up working groups comprised of public and private sector representatives who will discuss how to fulfill the ministers' aims. These include developing religious tourism and deciding how much money to invest. "The minute you know what you have to do you know how much money to spend," said Hirchson. The ministers also want to simplify the process of border crossings, with access to Gaza a particular concern for the Palestinians, although as Hirchson acknowledged, this will depend on events on the ground. "We are trying to do everything to open doors but the question is what is happening in the Gaza Strip. We are building everything from the ashes after five years of the intifada," he said. Nevertheless, all the sides believe their efforts can help advance regional peace and economic growth. "Tourism is a booster for peace and you can see it from this meeting," said Bandak. "Once we start marketing together we will show the world that this is a peaceful region," said Rami Levi, the director-general of the Marketing Administration in Israel's Tourism Ministry. "It will improve the economy for our people by bringing more jobs and more money," said Hirchson.