Last year may have been terrible for Palestinian politics, but 2010 could not have been better for tourism in the area. Indeed, the past 12 months were the best ever for the tourism industry in the Palestinian Authority (PA), where the industry grew by nearly 35 per cent, making it now worth some $855m. Fuelling that growth was a record 2.7 million visitors – twice the number from the year before – helping tourism account for an estimated 15 per cent of the entire Palestinian economy.
Much of the credit goes to the minister of tourism, Dr Khouloud Deibes, whose three-year tenure has returned the PA’s tourism sector to the record numbers seen before the break-out of the second Intifadeh in 2000. Yet equally crucial has been a parallel tourism surge across the border in Israel, which welcomed an unprecedented 3.5 million tourists in 2010 – many of whom also ventured into Palestine.
“We had our best month for 20 years in October during the Jewish holidays in Israel,” enthuses Raed Saadeh, owner and general manager of the Jerusalem Hotel in East Jerusalem and director of the Rozana Association, which promotes sustainable tourism in the PA. “There’s a direct correlation; we’re definitely benefiting from Israel’s boom.”
Those benefits are both wide-ranging and lasting. Israel’s current hotel-room shortage means visitors are now staying in Palestinian hotels – particularly leisure tourists in Bethlehem and business and NGO travellers in Ramallah. Getting to the properties still requires passing through potentially lengthy Israeli-controlled checkpoints, but Palestinian hotels are lower-priced, Saadeh says, and are increasingly reaching international standards.
With hotel chains like Movenpick moving in – with the $42m property they opened in Ramallah in November – new jobs are being created at a time of near 20 per cent unemployment throughout the West Bank, and ensuring Palestinian tourism dollars actually remain in Palestine. “Typically, travellers would visit West Bank holy sites during the day but return to Jerusalem at night,” says Rami Kassis, executive director of the Alternative Tourism Group just outside of Bethlehem. “Palestinian hotels would only get five or 10 per cent of tourism revenue, the rest would flow to Israel.”
Tourism stakeholders such as Saadeh and Kassis are optimistic 2010′s successes can stretch into 2011. After all, holy sites in Bethlehem, Jericho and Hebron have no global competitors for the travelling faithful. But the men are also realistic – well aware that the most important players in boosting Palestinian tourism lie on the eastern – rather than the western – banks of the Jordan River.
“We’re seeing major increases in tourism from Europe, America, Asia and Russia, but our biggest challenge remains the negative image people have of us,” Kassis says. “As long as international travel advisories and Israeli checkpoints stay in place, we will never fulfil our true tourism potential.”