Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

In Near East Travel’s East Jerusalem office, a satellite photograph of the Middle East is framed under glass, inscribed with the names of countries and major cities. National borders are unmarked. The Holy Land — so the map is labeled — appears as a single, seamless territory.

A full-page advertisement for Galilee Tours, an Israeli company, features a mock road sign in green and white. A single arrow, diverging from a central vector with Tel Aviv at its base, points the way to Jerusalem, Amman and Petra, another to Tiberias and Damascus.

These regional representations, each erasing international boundaries, illustrate a contiguous territory traversed for centuries by travelers even when diplomats could not. Yet these post-Oslo depictions also mark the beginning of unprecedented capital flow between states in the emerging regional economy, in accordance with peace’s “new condition of neighborliness.” [1] Tourism is pivotal in this realignment, as both product and progenitor of regional remapping.

As the strongest power in the region, Israel is at the center of these political processes, and tourism is serious business. Despite periodic “regional unrest” and falls in consumer confidence, the number of visitors to Israel has risen steadily since the early 1980s, topping 2 million in 1994. Total revenues in 1993 ($2.54 billion) represented one third of Israel’s service exports, an increase of 17.3 percent from the previous year — this amidst a Middle Eastern market (excluding Israel) whose total revenues ($5 billion) fell by some 7.5 percent. [2]

As prospects for the Israeli tourist market rise, Palestinian entrepreneurs contend with the inequitable outcomes of negotiations and the paucity of Israeli concessions to the Palestinian tourist sector. Many East Jerusalem agents fear that “early empowerment” has ceded them only the right to collect tickets at tourist sites.

Touring the Holy City

On June 19, 1996, “The Life of King David,” a musical extravaganza with stars from Broadway and Hollywood will debut in Jerusalem, one of many events planned to commemorate the city’s 3,000th anniversary. [3] This 15-month festival celebrates a selective history, Jewish conquest, and aims to exploit the regional tourist market, with Jerusalem at its center, that peace has already begun to deliver. In January 1994, Minister of Tourism Uzi Baram approved construction of some 10,000 new hotel rooms in Greater Jerusalem. With a scarcity of land in and around the city, plans are also underway to expand Tel Aviv’s hotel infrastructure, linked by a fast train to Jerusalem.

In East Jerusalem, jade green awnings and decorative lights have been installed in the Christian Quarter’s souvenir market, pay phones line Nablus Road, and palm trees stand outside Damascus Gate. Despite such cosmetic changes, Palestinian entrepreneurs argue that little is being done to facilitate their entry into the tourist market after nearly 30 years of forced underdevelopment. [4]

While Jerusalem was divided between 1948 and 1967, the movement of visitors across the ceasefire line was negligible. West Bank tourism, with East Jerusalem at its center, expanded significantly, but the West Jerusalem tourist market remained relatively underdeveloped. When occupation removed the border between East and West, Israel began a major development campaign. Receipts from travel/tourism, representing 10 percent of Israel’s income from services in 1968, rose to 23 percent in 1980, at more than $9 billion. [5] By 1988, hotel rooms had increased by 380 percent, while the Palestinian market rose by a mere 3 percent.

In the decades that followed, growth in the tourist sector of East Jerusalem was marred by discriminatory Israeli government practices. These included a virtual refusal to train Palestinian guides (the Ministry of Tourism issued only three new licenses to West Bank residents after 1967); crippling municipality taxes, from which many Israeli businesses were exempt; and refusal to license hotel construction or renovation in East Jerusalem, where the number of rooms has risen by only 16 percent since 1967, in contrast to an 82 percent growth in West Jerusalem.

Today, as Palestinian entrepreneurs struggle to secure land and zoning permits for new construction, the Israeli government continues to push its own agenda for East Jerusalem. On August 3, 1994, the municipality approved the second stage of an Israeli-initiated tourism project in the Palestinian village of Silwan. In November 1991, Jewish settlers, aided by several Knesset members, forcibly occupied several Silwan homes. Today, the fate of some of these properties still circulates in Israeli courts, but work is already underway on a half-acre tourism complex on land expropriated from the waqf and village residents. “This project will benefit Christians, Muslims and Jews alike,” the Ministry of Tourism contends. “Silwan residents who own stores [will] be encouraged to cater more to tourists.” [6]

On August 16, 1994, the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva (known for its “Judaization” of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter) was given permission to develop a tourist facility in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The Palestinian village of Jabal Mukabir, on the southern edge of Jerusalem, is the site of a particularly vulgar initiative. On September 24, 1993, the Planning and Construction Committee approved plans for a six-story hotel on a hill above the village. [7] Designed to service the adjacent Jewish neighborhood of East Talpiot, the hotel will boast a glass-topped, rotating restaurant with views of one of East Jerusalem’s poorest Palestinian communities, where houses are restricted by law to single-story construction.

Edge of Tomorrow

The landscape of the Judean desert, a 15-minute drive from Jerusalem’s Old City, is deceptive. Unpopulated expanses belie a history of contentious land expropriation, of tracts kept in reserve for local settlements. Private investors from the Alon settlement, less than 20 minutes from Jericho, are preparing for the onslaught of “peace tourists” with a “Land of Genesis” project that promises a return to the days of the Bible. Visitors are invited to don white robes in the “style of the Ancient Hebrews.” Hike the ancient land, the brochure suggests, reenact the story of Abraham with the help of Alon actors, or visit the on-site museum.

Ministry of Tourism support for projects like Land of Genesis corresponds to Israeli blueprints for a Greater Jerusalem, of which the Judean Hills are now considered an integral part. Central to this blueprint is Ma’ale Adumim which, at 50,000 dunams, is the West Bank’s largest settlement, reaching nearly to Jericho. Three major archaeological sites in the environs offer possibilities for profitable tourist expansion. Mayor Benny Kashriel has been working with the Tourism Ministry to develop 4,000 hotel rooms and a major tourist center. A 1995 advertisement luring potential settlers now boasts of proximity to neighboring Arab states, once understood as a liability: “Flanking all roads from Jordan and the Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf to Jerusalem and Ashdod, Tel Aviv and Haifa, Ma’ale Adumim rightly calls itself ‘A City on the Edge of Tomorrow.’” [8]

Ma’ale Adumim’s unprecedented celebration of regionalism is echoed in a 1994 Ministry of Tourism investment brochure proclaiming that “the new atmosphere for peace will create in Israel an international center for commerce, industry, research, banking and tourism, as well as a communication and transportation crossroads for the Middle East.” The rhetoric of peace and proximity, though, returns to old tropes of occupation, packaging Palestinian people, places and culture as “Israeli” artifacts. “Christian holy places in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem,” the text continues, “make Israel a focal point for millions of Christian pilgrims from all over the world.” The brochure charts an uninterrupted vector from one locale to the next, offering sites in “Judea and Samaria” alongside “the verdant hills of Galilee” as part of an undifferentiated Israeli landscape.

This simultaneous articulation of the discourses of peace and occupation accords with the politics of the “early empowerment” tourism agreement itself, which leaves Israel in unambiguous control. The “transfer of authority” affords the six-member Bethlehem-headquartered Palestinian tourism department responsibility for licensing and marketing hotels, tour companies and guides, and supervising souvenir shops. Israel retains control over land and the authority to issue permits for all zoning and construction. West Bank archaeological and religious sites remain under Israeli jurisdiction, as do nature reserves and national parks. Israeli tourism companies and guides have the right to continue West Bank operations.

In Jericho, hopes for a booming tourism market have not been realized. On the contrary, in late spring 1994 Israeli buses began circumventing the town on their hourly northern route, and in May 1994 the summer tourist market came to a standstill following Israeli government advisories (repealed in August) cautioning Israeli and foreign travelers against entry into the autonomous zone. The Israeli government maintains control over the movement of foreigners in the autonomous areas for “reasons of security.” Plans for projects dominated by Israeli and foreign capital in the neighboring Dead Sea region will further impinge on Jericho’s tourist market. Nor have Jericho residents benefited from employment on Dead Sea projects; many report being replaced at tourist facilities by Israeli and foreign laborers.

Bread and Butter

Despite the lessons of Jericho and the radical shortcomings of “early empowerment,” prominent Palestinian entrepreneurs regard tourism as “the bread and butter” of the emerging Palestinian economy, and aim to build 5,000 new West Bank hotel rooms in the near future. “There is no other alternative to put money, fast money, into the economy,” argues Hani Abu Dayyeh, vice-president of the Near East Tourist Agency. “Tourism is going to be the locomotive that will carry the rest of the economy forward.” [9]

Palestinian travel agents have been selling the Holy Land package — Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine — for over 20 years, albeit in relatively small numbers. But regional peace has radically altered demand: European travel agents name the Jordan-Israel package as 1995’s hottest commodity, and the North American market is not far behind. Ties between Israel and the Vatican are expected to swell the numbers of Catholic pilgrims. Middle Eastern diplomats are redrawing the political map, reinvigorating Arab and Muslim markets dormant since 1967.

Palestinians are bidding for a stake in this international market, encouraging foreign investment in West Bank and Gaza projects in cooperation with local speculators. Builders for Peace, a partnership of American, Arab and Jewish businessmen, has nine ventures representing some $280 million in capital investments; two are hotels designed for the Gaza Strip, now imagined as a potential resort for Jordanian and Palestinian visitors. Ziad Karram, head of GRdG International of Fairfax, Virginia, is financing one of these projects. “In Gaza there are hotels,” Karram explains, “but you wait in line for a telephone in the lobby. You share bathrooms. You can’t do business there the Western way.” [10]

GRdG plans a subsequent hotel in Jericho, and Bethlehem and Ramallah have been designated as possible future sites. To strengthen the tourist infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza, Abu Dayyeh recommends educational and other programs to repair damage wrought by forced stagnation under occupation. Bethlehem University, currently offering courses in hotel management and vocational training, might serve as one such facility. [11] Israel Tsir-Cohen, tourism coordinator for Judea and Samaria [sic], is optimistic about the possibilities of a future Palestinian tourist economy. While Abu Dayyeh recalls Israeli impediments to development of West Bank tourism, Cohen points the finger at poor planning and a Palestinian private sector that lacks expertise. He recommends that Palestinians market to Israelis — a nostalgic return to the pre-intifada days when excursions into the West Bank were frequent. “The Palestinian authorities could open an office in Tel Aviv.” He stresses the need for an industry that will encourage spending, and dreams of a “Bethlehem Sound and Light.” [12]

Second only to Jerusalem on the itinerary of Christian visitors, Bethlehem will be a mainstay of the future West Bank tourist economy. [13] As in Jerusalem, land is scarce. Seventy percent of Bethlehem residents earn their livelihood from tourism, although the city has only six hotels (293 rooms in total) and almost no parking for some 100 tour buses that visit the city daily. Plans for nearby settlements on Bethlehem land (e.g., Har Homa and the contested “neighborhoods” of Efrat and Givat Tamar) will shrink land resources even further. Given this scarcity and Israel’s reluctance to license construction, Palestinian tourism development will be contentious and difficult at best.

Some Palestinian entrepreneurs imagine a tourist industry that extends beyond the commercial gains of marketed goods and services. Tourism’s commodification of histories and national narratives offers a venue for combating the Palestinian erasure that has characterized the Israeli market. In the village of Bayt Sahour, famous for its non-violent tax resistance during the intifada, the Rapprochement Center is inaugurating a program of “alternative tourism.” Through home stays with Bayt Sahour families, the project will introduce Christian tourists to the daily life of Palestine’s Christian community. “It’s not a matter related to profits,” says Rapprochement leader Elias Rishmawi. “It’s related to resistance and understanding.” [14]

Red Sea Riviera

Israelis are eager to explore a Middle East now made available by shifting diplomacy. Since July 1994, two new border crossings with Jordan have been inaugurated. Israel’s Galilee Tours made history that month by leading “the first Israelis” across the Allenby Bridge. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism conceded, in retrospect, that the entry of Israeli tourists violated the Washington Declaration’s terms of border agreements, allowing for another “first visit” the following November. With Israeli officials naming Jordan “the Turkey of 1995” (i.e., the preferred vacation site of Israeli tourists, who collectively spent $480 million in Turkey in 1993), the Jordanian government initially welcomed the anticipated revenues. Yet in late December 1994, officials in Amman complained to Rabin of little economic growth from the tourist market, and of gross lapses in Israeli tourist etiquette. Between November and February, some 15,000 Israeli passport holders crossed into Jordan — far below Jordanian expectations. (“The threat of extremist Islam hovers over Amman,” Israeli newspapers explained.) [15] Jordanian visitors to Israel, on the other hand, number just over 1,000. [16] Tour operators in Amman complained that Israel was delaying Jordanian visas in the name of security.

Israeli and Jordanian officials agree that success in the regional tourist market depends on cooperative projects. Both countries look to Eilat and ‘Aqaba with plans for a “Red Sea Riviera.” Israel has responded favorably to a Jordanian request to extend ‘Aqaba’s airport into Israeli territory, with promises to accommodate large international flights at neighboring Israeli facilities. A highway project to connect the two cities is already underway. An underwater nature reserve, joint rescue services and cooperative water desalination remain in the planning stages. Inequities, reflecting a disparity in gross domestic product of some 11 to 1, are obvious. Eilat has nearly 6,000 hotel rooms; ‘Aqaba has 800.

Jordan, meanwhile, rushes to develop its tourist infrastructure to meet the expected swell of tourists. Aided by international capital, hotel construction is underway in Amman and Petra. Amman’s Intercontinental, the oldest five-star hotel in the city, is considering plans for a kosher kitchen.

Promise and Threat

On November 3, 1994, a full-page New York Times ad for Delta Airlines depicted a mosque silhouetted in the sunset. “Where on Earth Are We Going with This?” it reads. “Just about Everywhere.” An informed traveler can identify the site as Istanbul, but the photograph is unlabeled. This generic visual of the Middle East, illustrated through an aestheticized Islam, marks the outer limits of the tourist imagination.

Delta and the Israeli government share an interest in the Middle East as an integrated market. Yet Delta’s metonym for regional tourism conceals Israel’s emerging place at the hub of the Middle Eastern commercial map. Israel recently reached an agreement with Jordan permitting shared use of national airspace; for Israel, the possibility of overflying Jordan saves millions of dollars in fuel and flight time, and renders possible the conversion of Ben Gurion airport into a major stopover for flights between Europe and Asia. Construction of an additional terminal will allow the facility to handle 16 million passengers annually, a threefold increase in current traffic. Mordechai Ben Ari of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism predicts a growing market for layover visitors: “The Italian businessman whose final destination is Japan, and who today flies through Cairo, can now stop over in the Holy Land, in the context of peace.”

Investors are listening. KLM plans to move its Middle East center of operations to Ben Gurion. Three large hotel chains, Marriott, Meridian and Accor, are expected to enter the Israeli market in 1995. Capital investment from Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and the Gulf have already fueled billion-dollar tourist projects in the Jordan Valley region. “Some people say that Israel should work to become the Singapore of the Middle East,” Ben Ari suggests. “I think that is very possible.” [17]

Some Israelis fear the effects of the expanding market. For Azria Alon, founder of Israel’s Society for the Protection of Nature, “peace tourism” mounts a threat that policymakers cannot control:

We are going to gain in this peace, but maybe, at the same time, lose everything: our country, our Jewish identity, and, in the end, the opportunity to live in what we once called the land of Israel…. They expect millions of tourists from the whole world. The foreigners will fill the streets of our cities in masses, until it is no longer clear who lives here and who is a tourist. [18]

Alon’s narrative of the tourist mob foregrounds questions of national identity. Beyond a fear of numbers, these anxious questions respond to the profile of “peace tourists.” They include Muslims and Arabs from Asia and the Middle East who will mingle at Israeli sites with the more traditional European and North American travelers, with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, with Israel’s Muslims, Christians and Jews. As places of virtually unprecedented cross-regional Arab contact, these sites will occasion interrogations of comparative national identities. Here some Zionists panic. To raise such issues in the context of the Israeli state is to unsettle the founding myths of Israeli identity, blind to all but the Jewish-Ashkenazi subject, potentially threatening Alon’s very vision of the “the land of Israel.”

Endnotes

[1] Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Public Culture 2/2 (1990), p. 2.
[2] Eastern Mediterranean Tourism/Travel (September-October 1994), p. 8.
[3] Highlights include “Jerusalem Sound and Light” and an open-air production of Verdi’s “Nabucco,” dramatizing the destruction of the First Temple.
[4] Hani Abu Dayyeh, vice president of the Near East Tourist Agency, interview, August 1994.
[5] The recent wave of immigration from Russia and Ethiopia (averaging 20-30,000 per month) also subsidized the Israeli market, as many immigrants were housed in Israeli hotels upon arrival.
[6] Jerusalem Post, August 4, 1994.
[7] This committee (known by its Hebrew acronym Vlal) was formed in 1990 with the help of then Housing Minister Ariel Sharon to “facilitate” building for immigrants. Projects approved by this committee allow two weeks (as opposed to the normal two months) for appeal by victims of expropriation, thereby expediting the building process. The committee was granted an initial two-year tenure under the Likud administration, which was then extended under Rabin.
[8] Jerusalem Post, September 2, 1994.
[9] Abu Dayyeh, interview, July 1994.
[10] Washington Post, September 19, 1994.
[11] The university’s initiatives to begin a two-year course for tour-guides were curtailed in 1988 by military closure of the institution. The course has not yet been reconvened.
[12] Interview, August 1994.
[13] According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, Christians represented 63 percent of all tourists in 1994.
[14] Interview, August 1994.
[15] Yediot Aharonot, December 28, 1994.
[16] Washington Post, January 25, 1995.
[17] Interview, September 1994.
[18] Ha’aretz, September 9, 1994.

How to cite this article:

Rebecca L Stein "Itineraries of Peace," Middle East Report 196 (September/October 1995).
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