Israel lets more tour guides enter PA cities

Following successful pilot project Tourism Ministry official says ‘initiative strengthens normalization between Israel, Palestinians'

Bethlehem 311 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Bethlehem 311
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
The Tourism Ministry announced Tuesday that in light of the success of a fivemonth pilot project which permitted 50 Israeli tour guides and drivers to guide foreign tourists in Bethlehem and Jericho (cities controlled by the Palestinian Authority), the ministry would raise the number to 200.
Civil Administration Head Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, on Tuesday, informed Tourism Ministry Senior Deputy Director-General Rafael Ben-Hur that he was agreeing to expand the pilot project to 100 tour guides and 100 drivers. This followed the assessment of the situation by the Central Command and the Civil Administration, The joint Tourism Ministry and Civil Administration pilot project marked the first time since the outbreak of the second intefada in 2000, that tourists in Bethlehem and Jericho had Israeli guides. The pilot was launched in June, and encountered no problems.
“This initiative greatly strengthens normalization between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and is convenient for both the tourists and guides,” said Ben-Hur.
According to Ben-Hur, the Tourism Ministry’s initiative came after a multitude of requests from the tourism industry – tour guides, travel agencies, tour operators, and the tourists themselves – who requested that the professional guides accompanying the groups during their visit to Israel be permitted to continue guiding them during their visit to Bethlehem. Before the project was launched, Israeli guides had to hand their groups over to Palestinian tour guides because security restrictions prevented the Israelis from entering PA-controlled areas.
In early January, the Civil Administration issued regulations for Israeli tour guides and drivers entering Bethlehem; about 500 tour guides and drivers requested to take part in the project.
Since the demand for permits surpassed the requisite number of guides, Ben-Hur said the ministry would select them by lottery.
“We want to ensure there are guides who speak all languages, and that not all the permits go to a single agency. Thus, a lottery is the best solution,” said Ben-Hur.
“Down the line we hope that more Israelis will be allowed to enter the city, eventually reaching a point where there won’t be a tourism border between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.”
Ben-Hur said that cooperating with the PA on tourism furthered the tourism ministry’s aim to market Israel and the region as the Holy Land, and would thus draw in more tourists, especially Christians.
The pilot program is in accordance with the Paris Protocols; signed as part of the Oslo agreements, it calls for reciprocity in tourist guiding.
Ben-Hur said that there are currently 40 permits for Palestinian tour guides to work in Israel.
Tourism Minister Stas Miseznikov praised the tour guides’ participation, and the cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. “I see great importance in tour guiding in Bethlehem which will ..increase ..the tour guides’ work, allow for top-level guiding for tourists, increase cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and, no less important, will improve the international image of Israel and the Holy Land as a safe destination for tourists.” According to the Tourism Ministry, in the last two years, cooperation between the Tourism Ministry and tourism entities in the Palestinian Authority brought in over a million visitors and tourists to Bethlehem in 2008, and over 1.3 million in 2009.
Majed Ishaq, marketing director for the Palestinian Tourism Ministry said that as far as the Palestinian government was concerned, PA cities were open to anyone. Ishaq hoped that the initiative would be a step towards approving additional Palestinian guides for work in Israel. He added that the two governments worked together on a technical level to ensure freedom of movement and encourage tourism to the Holy Land.