New PA tourism minister aims to 'rebrand' Palestine

The new PA government has brought many little-known figures into the spotlight, including Khuloud Daibes.

pa tourism minister  (photo credit: Shabtai Gold)
pa tourism minister
(photo credit: Shabtai Gold)
The new Palestinian Hamas-Fatah coalition government has brought many little-known figures into the spotlight, including the new tourism minister, Khuloud Daibes. Before accepting the post, Daibes was director of the Center for Cultural Preservation in Bethlehem for six years. She received her doctorate in archeological conservation in Germany and has dedicated her "whole life," she says, to the field in one way or another. She was born in Bethlehem to a Christian family, but grew up on the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem. She describes herself as "a technocrat without a political background, an independent." Immediately before giving an interview to The Jerusalem Post, Daibes met with the Hamas members of the Bethlehem local council. "They want to see what we can do for the local community, and to offer me their words of congratulations," she says. Making sure that local communities benefit from tourism is one of her main objectives as minister. Daibes faces formidable challenges in her new job. Her government is divided and faces significant restrictions. She is responsible for the tourism industry in an entity that is not independent, has an ever-worsening image as a dangerous place to visit, and lacks territorial continuity or control over its borders. "We can't function like this, with the [international aid] boycott and the restrictions on movement" she says in her Bethlehem office. The checkpoints and other restrictions lead tourists to prefer Jerusalem as their base, so they do not stay overnight in Bethlehem, she says. Even during the Easter holiday, hotels in the city are only at 20 percent capacity - which Daibes says is considerably higher than the usual 5%. There is a trend of visitors going straight to holy sites, the Church of the Nativity, and then leaving right away, "without spending a shekel in the city." "Restaurants have shut down, taxi drivers are without work and hotels are in trouble because of the high maintenance costs coupled with low occupancy rates," Daibes says. Her main goals are improving the destinations' image abroad - "rebranding Palestine" - and restructuring the industry, including working closely with the private sector. In particular, she wants to increase the amount of time people spend in the Palestinian areas while visiting the Holy Land. "We are counting on cooperation with the outside world to give Palestine the image it deserves and encourage tourism and pilgrims. Behind the wall," she says, referring to the security barrier surrounding Bethlehem, "they will find friendly people with a rich heritage and culture ready to receive them." During her time at the Cultural Preservation Center, Daibes was involved in the rehabilitation of many historical sites, something that also encourages tourism. She plans to stick with this model as minister. She says Palestinians have neglected heritage sites, something she wants to end. "People are too concerned with daily life, work, and they don't realize the importance of the old buildings, sometimes. We are working to increase heritage awareness among Palestinians, including in schools," she says. This type of education is increasingly important because of the restrictions on movement, she says. "Young people from Hebron have never been to the Old City of Nablus, and vice versa. West Bankers can't travel to Gaza," she laments. She notes that Israel has a particularly high number of archeologists and says, "They are interested in proving their existence on the land." Daibes, however, feels that "all layers of history here, including the Jewish parts, are part of our Palestinian history. Judaism is the first of the three monotheistic religions and this is a place of three religions, a rich cultural diversity, a place of spirituality." A sore spot for her is that Rachel's Tomb on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem is now off limits to Muslims and Christian Palestinians, "even though it is holy to all three religions. The tomb is now exclusive." During her time working in NGOs, Daibes cooperated with Israelis, and she looks forward to the chance to do so again, but says it is difficult because of the restrictions. This may prove doubly difficult at official levels, given that the new Israeli minister of tourism, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, is from the far-right Israel Beiteinu party. Of course, as long as the PA government is boycotted by its Israeli counterpart, there will be no cooperation, anyway. Daibes is the only woman serving in the new Palestinian government who is not in a position reserved for women. Amal Siam, appointed by Hamas, is minister of women's affairs. This is a sign of change, Daibes says. She wants to "encourage other women to take part in leadership roles. This will have an educational affect on society. Also, women are an essential part of state-building." Her success as minister will lead to more women in political positions, she says. "Because two out of 25 ministers is not yet a full representation of society," she adds. "I am primarily minister of tourism, but I still see myself committed to defending women's issues, to lobby and to improve legislation." Men in her society must be convinced that women can work and have families, she says. "I myself have three children," she remarks with pride. She grins as she says, "I have chosen an untypical job, as a woman."