According to Rami Qassis, director of the ATG Tourism Agency, "Tourism is one of the more important industries for Palestine and Palestinians. But Palestinians are not gaining a lot from this industry, and this is due to the monopoly that Israel
has imposed on the Palestinian tourism industry.”
Home to Roman and Ottoman ruins, religious sites held sacred in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and marvelous hills, mountains, and cliffs, the West Bank contains a blend of attractions for tourists.
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The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities reported recently that so far in 2012, 1.7 million foreign tourists had visited the Palestinian Territories. This number represents a large improvement from the instability of the early 2000s, when tourism to the West Bank had virtually ceased.
“Ten years back there was advice everywhere for people not to visit Palestinian areas, but nowadays people started to come again," says Qassis. "Even Israeli travel agencies started to send groups to Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah and east Jerusalem.”
The principal site that tourists head for in the West Bank is Bethlehem and the Nativity Church, known as the historic birth place of Jesus.
Such tourists represent part of the traditional pilgrimage market, but many working in the tourism sector agree that the West Bank can and should diversify to appeal to a broader range of tourists.
Sami Khoury, General Director of VisitPalestine site, says that "another big challenge we face is the way these programs are structured. They leave very little time and money being spent in Palestinian areas.
"Groups are usually shuttled in and shuttled out of Bethlehem, but the majority of them are day visitors who come for half a day. They visit the beautiful Church of the Nativity, maybe Shepherd's Field, and they drive out again, spending very little money in the host communities.”
Two main problems face the West Bank tourism sector. The West Bank has no independent borders – it has no airport and no ports. Israel controls access to West Bank areas and many visitors to the West Bank still stay inside Israel, only making day excursions to the West Bank.
Due to years of political turmoil and clashes with the Israeli military control, the West Bank also has an image problem.
“We realize that there's a very big gap online in terms of Palestine's presence," says Khoury. "All you see is usually bad news. You don't get to see the positive side, a different side of Palestine. And that's why we decided to actually develop and launch this portal to give people a better idea of what Palestine has to offer.”
While changing the West Bank's image in Western media is no easy task, there are positive indicators which suggest that more tourists are visiting. In 2005, there were just 350,000 overnight guests in Palestinian hotels. By 2011, the number of overnight guests had reached 1.5 million.
Despite its many compelling destinations, the West Bank is still not an obvious tourist sell. In order to increase tourist revenues, Palestinians have a steep path to climb.
But, like many industries in the West Bank, the tourism sector has only really been in existence for 18 years and so there are reasons for optimism going forward.