Palestinians report boost in tourism to W. Bank for Easter

Police report states 464,000 tourists traveled to territories, 137,000 of whom were int'l passport-holders and 83,000 were Israeli Arabs.

Bethlehem easter 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Bethlehem easter 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The Palestinian Authority has announced a 50-percent rise in tourism activity in March compared to the same period last year.
A report by the PA Tourism and Antiquities Police, released on Tuesday, said tourism in the Palestinian territories had increased during March, with a considerable rise in guests registered in local hotels.
The police report stated that 464,000 tourists had traveled to the West Bank, 137,000 of whom were international passport-holders and 83,000 were Israeli Arabs.
The number of guests staying in hotels saw a 50% increase compared with last year’s figures, the report said, noting that 81,154 travelers had booked hotels – 70,047 foreign nationals, 9,426 locals, and 1,681 Israeli Arabs. Last March, only 39,521 tourists stayed in West Bank hotels, the statement read.
Palestinian tourism professionals approached by The Jerusalem Post said they were unaware of the precise statistics, but credited the rise in tourism to the natural ebb and flow of the seasons and to a calmer and more peaceful atmosphere in the region. Last year saw the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which negatively affected all tourism in the region.
“It makes sense that numbers are up. After all, this is the holiday season, and many pilgrims choose to visit the region’s holy sites during Easter,” said Johnny Sayegh, director of Inspiration Tours, which operates out of east Jerusalem. “Everything affects tourism – security, politics, the economy. Lately things have gotten better. It’s been quiet, so the tourists are coming.”
Sayegh said most of the tourist groups with which he worked were groups of pilgrims visiting the West Bank to see the biblical sites, mainly Bethlehem and Jericho.
“I have many clients from Western Europe and the English-speaking world. Most of them are Catholic pilgrims,” said Sayegh. He added that in the last few months, there had been a marked increase of visitors from Eastern European countries like Poland, Georgia and Romania.
George Abdalla, who, together with his father Gabriel, runs Sinbad Tour Travel Agency, said that in addition to the traditional pilgrimage tours, he enjoyed marketing what he called “alternative tours.”
“Some people aren’t interested in visiting churches and graves,” he explained. “For them, I gladly offer three-day spa packages at the Dead Sea or four days of leisure in Eilat.”
Abdalla said he had recently sent tourists on a visit to a kibbutz in the Negev, where they could see modern agricultural techniques and absorb the desert tranquility.
According to Abdalla, one of the main impediments to the development of Palestinian tourism is the Israeli security measures, namely the checkpoints.
“Israeli checkpoints have a huge effect on our itineraries,” he said. “They are unpredictable, and they take a long time to go through. We always tell our clients that schedules are subject to change because of the checkpoints. People tend to understand, but it’s a genuine hassle.”
Abdalla believes that the West Bank has a huge potential for tourism, saying the competitive prices and the good service are natural drawing points. He also said tourism was immensely important for the development of the Palestinian economy.
“Tourism is an economic engine that helps lift other industries. A group of 60 tourists who visit generate income for many people in a varied range of industries. In the West Bank, it is the most welcome form of business and should be the government’s No. 1 priority, even before agriculture,” he said.
While the majority of Palestinian tour operators, like Sinbad and Inspiration, work mainly with pilgrims, an emerging phenomenon in the West Bank is foreign nationals who come to see the effects of the conflict firsthand.
Rami Kassis, director of the Alternative Tour Group (ATG), specializes in promoting “justice tourism” – tours and pilgrimages that include critical examinations of the history, culture and politics of the Holy Land.
Kassis said that the people using his company’s services were student groups on fact-finding missions, church groups concerned with issues of social justice, international solidarity groups and NGOs, and political organizations that wanted to learn about the conflict. Kassis takes groups to visit refugee camps, communities affected by the security barrier, local peace activists and universities.
He said that while his company was one of the smaller tour providers in the West Bank, it provided these tours for between 2,000-2,5000 people a year.
ATG’s Web site also features a special section for Jewish travelers wishing to visit the West Bank.
“Jewishtravelers wearing Star of David jewelry, the kippa,or loudly referring to themselves as Jews may be misunderstood to beIsraelis and supporters of the Occupation,” he said. “This is not tosay that Israelis are necessarily in danger in Palestine – many Israeliactivists work side by side with Palestinians. However, Israelis can bea target of Palestinian militant groups. Jewish travelers areencouraged to keep all of these details in mind, and to be selective inwhom they tell about their heritage.”
He added, “It is our hopethat, as more Jews who oppose Israeli policies visit Palestine and maketheir positions known to Palestinians, this selectiveness will be lessnecessary.”