In the West Bank, Politics and Tourism Remain Bound Together Inextricably

Published: April 16, 2006 (NY Times)

LIKE many Middle Eastern deluxe hotels, the Jacir Palace InterContinental is an exercise in Ottoman-era ostentatiousness, with an elegant, filigreed facade and soaring domed ceilings. Yet upon pulling back our suite's curtains, it became instantly apparent that the Jacir was anything but a typical luxury hotel in a typical holiday destination. Snaking along the hotel's back side stood Israel's separation wall, a gray cement reminder of our location: Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

Travel to the West Bank under any guise is almost always political. Although most of its tourist sites are Christian and Muslim, the West Bank tourism industry has historically been controlled by Israel since the beginning of the occupation in 1967. Indeed, not only does Israel regulate the movement of tourists to the West Bank and their Palestinian guides, but Israeli tour operators mostly control how and where tourists dollars are spent, according to experts on both sides. And such oversight, observers report, has grown stronger since the Hamas victory in January's Palestinian Authority elections.

Israel's involvement is perhaps most contentious when it comes to hotels, and the choice to house visitors in Jerusalem rather than the West Bank. According to the Arab Hotel Association, occupancy rates in Bethlehem stood at a mere 2.5 percent last year, although the number of tourists more than doubled. "For us to receive the fruits of this tourism," explained Ziad al-Bandak, minister of Tourism and Antiquities for the Palestinian National Authority, "We need visitors to sleep in Bethlehem for a couple of days."

Israeli travel industry executives agree, but point out that cautions from American and European governments about travel in the West Bank — like the one issued by the United States following the recent election — make it hard to insure tour operations in the territories.

"Tourists did keep away for about 10 days after the Hamas win," said Mark Khano, director of the Jerusalem-based Guidingstar tour company. "But today, fundamentally nothing has really changed for tourists just because Hamas is in power." Most problematic, however, is the Israeli government's ban on its citizens — including Israeli guides — from crossing into the West Bank. "If we can't even enter the area," said Ami Etgar, general manager of the Israel Incoming Tourism Association, "there is no way we can have our clients sleep there."

Meanwhile, grassroots organizations like Open Bethlehem and the Alternative Tourism Group are working aggressively to promote West Bank-based tourism alternatives. For instance, Open Bethlehem, which began this year, is developing tours for British operators using Bethlehem as its hub. "We'll take visitors to area wineries and monasteries, on wilderness tours and for courses in local cuisine, " said Carol Dabdoub, Open Bethlehem's director of operations in the Palestinian territories.

Already, Open Bethlehem has attracted some prominent fans: Pope Benedict XVI was presented with an Open Bethlehem "passport" by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, during his visit in early 2006 to the Vatican, while Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the archbishop of Westminster, made a special plea for Bethlehem tourism during his annual Christmas speech last year. The 10-year-old Alternative Tourism Group, meanwhile, is focusing on independent travelers. Its latest venture is "Palestine and the Palestinians," a slick, colorful, 436-page guidebook intended as the first comprehensive guide to Palestine — from a Palestinian point of view. Along with hotels and restaurants, the book touches on political issues like settlements, Zionism and the Separation Wall. "For us politics is tourism," said Ms. Dabdoub of Open Bethlehem.

Infrastructure developed in anticipation of the anniversary of Christ's birth in 2000, coupled with widely revered historical sites, makes the West Bank a destination of tremendous potential. The Jacir Palace in Bethlehem — which reopened this September after being closed for five years — is one of many high-end hotels that have yet to reach full capacity. In Jericho, for instance, the gleaming 181-room InterContinental remains in "soft opening" mode five years after its debut. Fueling a modest recovery, is Jericho's newfound status as an "open city" under direct Palestinian control. Although Israeli troops raided the Jericho jail last month, in normal circumstances there are no checkpoints, no separation wall and no Israeli Jews inside the city.

Instead visitors experience what could be a version of the Palestinian city of the future. Its central square is surrounded by Arab enterprises — sweet shops heaving with syrupy delights, hummus parlors, tiny clothes shops. More compelling, however, is Jericho's legacy. The 12th-century Monastery of the Qurantul on the Mount of Temptation — reachable by a 20th-century cable car — is built on a majestic site where Jesus is believed to have fasted for 40 days while tempted by the devil. Outside Jericho, Nabi Musa is an austere, colonnaded mosque built by a Mamluk sultan at the place where Moses is reportedly buried. The equally remote Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Saba lies hidden along a silent, empty wadi 15 miles east of Bethlehem.

Back in Bethlehem, Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity and Shepherds' Field remain high on the list of attractions. Just as vital are places like the Salesian Cremisan Monastery — a winery as well as a convent with terraced vineyards and terra-cotta roofs — in the suburb of Beit Jala.

"People never cancel their trips to this region, they only postpone them," said Mr. Khano of Guidingstar, who also serves as Secretary of the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association. "Unlike a beach or mountain destination, the Holy Land has no real competitor."

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