Shalom, and welcome to al-Quds

As tourism to Jerusalem picks up, so too does number of Muslim visitors.

british muslims jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy )
british muslims jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy )
A large group of burka-clad female Indonesian tourists follow the guide, listening eagerly to every word. They are heading to al-Aksa - fulfilling a dream of nearly every Muslim on earth. Coming from distant Indonesia, a country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, the realization of this dream is an even more gratifying experience for these pilgrims. Jerusalem, or al-Quds (the Holy) in Arabic, is cherished as the third Holy city in Islam after Mecca and Medina. It was the place of the first qibla (prayer direction). There, it is believed, the prophet Muhammad took his magical journey to Heaven. Although Muslims are not obliged to visit Jerusalem, unlike undertaking a hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca at least once in their lives, millions dream of a trip to Jerusalem and to its holy sites. The Indonesian group of women has made this dream come true. Yet, upon return to their native country, not many will share their experience from the Holy Land with their friends, they won't bring many souvenirs home, and their passports will never be stamped with an Israeli visa as they would then be denied access to certain Muslim countries. The group asked not to be photographed, justifying their request by standards of the Muslim way of life (men are not supposed to look at a photo of any woman who is not their wife or close relative). Only one of the group said she is afraid that her photo will make it into the international press and somehow reach Indonesia. "Some people go to Jerusalem. I'm not the first or the only one, but we never know what the reaction of the extremists will be. They believe that no Muslim should set foot in Jerusalem as long as it is occupied," she said. At last, tourists are coming back to Jerusalem, the city that is destined to be one of the most visited places on earth, which for many years had the reputation of being one of the most dangerous destinations. This year may well be one of the most successful since 2000, despite the global financial crisis. Many tourists waited for the city too long to postpone the journey now. During the years of the intifada, some were afraid to come; others couldn't go due to the political climate in their own countries. Among those who benefited from the relative calm of the last two years and the revival of the negotiation process between the Israelis and the Palestinians are tourists from Malaysia and Indonesia, two Muslim countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Today the Malaysians and Indonesians can often be spotted in the Old City, especially during the weekend, when the Friday prayer is conducted at al-Aksa and the Sunday mass is performed at the churches. Just a few years ago an Indonesian group in the Old City would arouse curiosity and plenty of attention, being a tourist attraction on their own. Today some tour guides joke that sometimes now you see more Indonesians and Malaysians than Americans or Europeans. Obviously, this is an exaggeration. Nevertheless, statistics provided by the Tourism Ministry reveal an increase in tourists from Indonesia in 2007 - 11,410 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 there is a high probability that this year will be a record year in tourism from Muslim countries of South-East Asia. A decade ago, thousands of Indonesian and Malaysian tourists, both Muslim and Christian, visited the Holy Land. Tourism was an indicator of warming relations between Indonesia - the largest Muslim country - Malaysia and Israel. The 1990s were over, and in the new millennium many hopes were dashed with the outbreak of the intifada. The outrageous statements of Indonesian and Malaysian leaders about Israel, the slanderous demonstrations against the Jewish state and the hostile attitudes on the streets did little toward promoting tourism to Israel. Today, the Malaysians and the Indonesians eager to see Jerusalem are coming back. "I had wanted to visit al-Quds all my life, as long as I can remember," says an Indonesian Muslim pilgrim in her early 60s. She explains that Jerusalem is a major component of her faith and that she grew up with the image of this city in her heart. "Until this moment, I did not believe I was here. For most Indonesians, it's easier to accept that you can visit the moon than Jerusalem. The first reason is that we always imagined Jerusalem as a mystical place, where the Prophet started Israa and Miraj (the magical journey to heaven), and where the magnificent Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque reside. You hardly think of it as of a real place. And the fact that Jerusalem is part of Israel, which is perceived as an enemy state, diminishes your chances of ever visiting this place. It's much easier for me to go to a hajj or an omra (a little hajj) in Mecca than to visit Jerusalem," she says. THERE ARE no Israeli embassies in the capital cities Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta; however, Israeli visas are granted to organized groups that usually fly through Singapore or Bangkok to Cairo or Amman and arrive in Jerusalem via the Allenby Bridge or Taba crossing in Eilat. Many potential tourists are confused about how they can get the visa, will it be stamped on their passport and will they be subjected to interrogations upon return from the Holy Land. Some Malaysian bloggers have posted contradictory information regarding this issue, claiming that passports of some citizens were stamped in the Malaysian Interior Ministry with a special note that prohibits visiting Israel. Others say that it's easier to obtain an Israeli visa for Malaysian Christians of Chinese origin than for Muslims. Yet another blogger writes on that "Malaysians (Muslims in particular) are barred from entering the 'state' of Israel and risk either having their passports confiscated on their return to Malaysia or risk being forbidden to travel again. This is a longstanding policy, although I have heard of two or three instances where special permission was granted to Christian missionaries going to the 'holy land' but it's been rare." Malaysian and Indonesian tourists rarely visit Israel on their own (unless they are businessmen who can get a letter of invitation from their Israeli partners). Boaz Yuval, a certified tour guide who often accompanies groups from Indonesia and Malaysia, says that most of the visitors are Christians, but there are some Muslim groups from Indonesia, in addition to Muslim pilgrims from India. A holder of an Israeli passport cannot visit Malaysia or Indonesia, although some Israeli officials have paid visits to both countries. An Interior Ministry spokesperson explained that visas for individuals or groups who request an Israeli visa are granted one only after permission from the Security Ministry has been obtained. "If the tourists from these countries apply for a visa in Israeli consulates abroad, the Foreign Affairs Ministry handles the request and transfers every application to the Security Ministry. If they have an official invitation by an Israeli travel agency, the Interior Ministry handles the visa. But the process is the same, and the security check is the same," she says. SO WHERE does one go to book a trip to Israel in Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta? There are local tour operators who handle these tours, but many tourists prefer to book their trip abroad. For example, Shahedah Tours, located in Singapore (a four-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur) offers a special deal for Muslim tourists. For $2,500 one can purchase a 10-day tour and visit Jordan, Israel and Egypt. The company advertises a package on its Internet site, which has an image of a Middle East map that includes Israel. The cost includes the fee for an Israeli visa. In Jerusalem, the faithful will visit al-Aksa Mosque - the focal point of the whole trip - as well as Marwani Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The trip also includes a visit to the Mount of Olives and the Place of Ascension. Then the group goes to Hebron, where they pray at the Ibrahimi Mosque (the Muslim part of the Tomb of the Patriarchs), a few Muslim sites in Bethlehem, the Hassan Bek Mosque in Jaffa, al-Jazzar Mosque in Acre and the Shehab ad-Din Mosque in Nazareth. The Christian pilgrims naturally focus on the Christian Holy sites - Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Kana, the Carmel, Meggido and important Christian landmarks. Yuval says that at present, the majority of the groups are Christian pilgrims. There are 15 million to 18 million devoted Christians in Indonesia and almost 2.5 million Christians in Malaysia. How easy is it for tourists who live in an anti-Israel-saturated atmosphere to adapt to being in Israel? Yuval, who speaks some Bahasa, the official language in Indonesia, says that when it comes to Indonesian and Malaysian Christians, the Arab-Israeli conflict doesn't pose a problem. "They come from the place of so much love for Israel. They are well aware of the situation here and are very open-minded. The majority are evangelicals. Their belief is that the redemption will begin with the return of all the Jews to the Holy Land," he says. It usually takes the Muslims much more time to understand and accept local realities because they come with a preconceived image of good and bad, Yuval says. "They ask a lot of questions about daily life, coexistence, the sanitary conditions, etc. In east Jerusalem, they are particularly curious about why it is so much dirtier than the western part of the city. Many of them are very surprised by what they see here - both good and bad." Malaysians and Indonesians are not the only Muslim tourists who visit Israel. Recently, many Jordanian tourists were seen in Jerusalem's Malha Mall engaging in the not so holy but oh so satisfying process of shopping. George Horesh, a well-known local tour guide, says that when Jordanians hit the mall, they are keen to empty as many shops as possible. "The pricy labels are less expensive in Israel. And some items are not even available in Jordan. So they come to Jerusalem, visit relatives, go to al-Aksa and then take it to the mall," says Horesh. Another form of tourism is medical tourism. Until the onset of the intifada, many Egyptians and Jordanians frequented Jerusalem's many hospitals. These days there is some flow of medical tourists from neighboring Arab countries, and sometimes even Iran and the United Arab Emirates. But for now, the influx of tourists from Muslim and Arab countries - whether they are pilgrims, shoppers or medical tourists - remains limited. The unstable political situation, the stagnation of the negotiations and the risk of being perceived as a "normalizer" at home - all these factors affect the possibility of Israel's becoming a prime destination for tourists from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.