Muslim tourism on the rise?

A large group of burqa-clad female Indonesian tourists follow the guide, listening eagerly to every word while making their way to the al-Aksa mosque - finally fulfilling a life-long dream. They hail from Indonesia, but upon their return home very few will share the experience with their fellow countrymen. They won't bring many souvenirs home and their passports will never be stamped with an Israeli visa. The group asked not to be photographed, explaining that Muslim men are not supposed to look at the photo of any woman who is not their wife or close relative. The real reason, however, may lie in the explanation offered by one of the women, who said she is afraid that her photo will make it to the international press and somehow reach Indonesia. "Some people go to Jerusalem, I'm not the first or the only one, yet we never know what the reaction of extremists will be. They believe that no Muslim should set his foot in Jerusalem as long as it is 'occupied,'" she said. At last, tourism is coming back to Jerusalem, which for many years had a reputation of being one of the most dangerous places to visit. During the Intifada years some were afraid to come, others couldn't go due to the political climate in their countries. But the relative calm of the last two years and the revival of the negotiation process between Israelis and Palestinians have brought with them an upsurge in tourism from Malaysia and Indonesia, two Muslim countries that do not have any diplomatic relations with Israel. In fact, some tour guides joke that now you can see more Indonesians and Malaysians than Americans or Europeans. While this may be an exaggeration (the figures are still relatively small and insignificant in terms of influence on the tourism industry in Israel), statistics provided by the Ministry of Tourism point to an increase in tourists from the two countries. In 2007 there were 11,410 Indonesian tourists, compared to 7,326 in 2006 and 8,412 in 2005. The figures of Malaysian tourists are smaller: 1,952 in 2007, 1,248 in 2006 and 1,451 in 2005. The statistics for 2008 are not available yet, but it remains highly probable that this year will produce record numbers. "I wanted to visit al-Quds (Jerusalem in Arabic) all my life, as long as I can remember myself," says one Indonesian pilgrim in her early 60s. "Until this moment I do not believe I'm here. For most Indonesians it's easier to accept that you can visit the moon rather than Jerusalem," she told Metro. There are no Israeli embassies in Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta. Israeli visas are granted to organized groups who usually fly through Singapore or Bangkok to Cairo or Amman, from where they arrive in Israel via the Allenby Bridge or the Taba crossing south of Eilat. Obtaining an Israeli visa is easier for Malaysian Christians of Chinese origin then for Muslims. According to one Malaysian blogger, "Malaysians (Muslims in particular) are barred from entering the "State" of Israel and risk either having their passports confiscated upon returning to Malaysia or risk being barred from travel again." Boaz, a certified tour guide who often accompanies groups from both Indonesia and Malaysia, says that according to his own experience most of the visitors are Christians, yet there are some Muslim groups from Indonesia, in addition to Muslims from India who also come on religious tours. Meanwhile, Israeli passport holders cannot visit Malaysia or Indonesia, although some Israeli officials have paid visits to both countries. Malaysians and Indonesians are not the only Muslim tourists who visit Israel either. Recently, Jordanian tourists were spotted in Jerusalem's Malha mall engaging in some vigorous shopping. George Horesh, a well-known tour guide, says that usually when Jordanians "hit" the mall they are keen to empty as many shops as possible. "The pricey labels are less expensive in Israel and some are not even available in Jordan. So they come to Jerusalem, visit relatives, go to al-Aksa and then come to the mall." An Interior Ministry spokesperson told Metro that visas to Israel for individuals or groups are granted only after approval from the Defense Ministry is obtained. "If the tourists from these countries apply for a visa in Israeli consulates abroad, the Foreign Ministry handles the request and transfers every application to the Defense Ministry. If they have an official invitation from an Israeli travel agency, the Interior Ministry handles the visa, but the process is the same and the security check is the same."