In the first article, I mentioned that a representative from Israel's Ministry of Tourism referred to a "Gentlemen's Agreement" with Palestinians regarding the safety of tourists. In other words, Palestinians are also dependent on tourism so terrorists generally do not target foreign tour buses or Israel's tourist sites. Further research seems to support this rationale.
"Whenever someone asks me if it's safe over there for tourists, I always say yes," James Zogby, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Arab American Institute, told PharoahS Magazine last year. "I would think twice about going on a trip to Miami or New York, where you can't walk the streets. Give me the Middle East any day," Zogby added.
Palestine, as well as Israel, thrives on tourism. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism web site: "Palestine's long and interesting history comes alive when you visit the many archaeological sites. For example, there is ancient Jericho, the oldest town in the whole world. There is Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus and Gaza with their significant archaeological sites, which tell of a history that goes back thousands of years, not forgetting Bethlehem and its biblical significance as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
"Palestine may not be highlighted on the world tourist map because of political and other reasons," the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism notes. "This does not, however, change the fact that Palestine is one of the greatest places to visit. But it is true that the tourism sector, along with the rest of the Palestinian aspects of life, suffered a lot during the past decades."
PharoahS Magazine points out that the tourist trade is second to oil exports as a leading source of revenue in many parts of the Arab world. "The current unrest has not only led to the elimination of thousands of tourism-related jobs, but it has also interrupted commerce and threatened economic growth in Israel, Palestine and several neighboring countries."
According to PharoahS, the West Bank town of Bethlehem is perhaps hardest hit by the decline in tourism. In 2000, some $200 million had been spent on improvements to manage the estimated 1.5 million tourists expected for the millennial festivities, but only a fraction of visitors actually showed. Palestinian authorities estimate the city lost more than $100,000 a day in tourist revenue that year.
Raphael Farber, chairman of Royal Plaza Hotels in Israel, wrote in December 2000 that at the Royal Plaza chain of hotels and at its flagship hotel, the Olive Tree, 80 percent of the employees are Palestinians and 20 percent are Israelis. "Due to the drop in tourism, we have had to lay off hundreds of employees. Most of these employees are the main providers for their families. The crisis in tourism affects the Palestinians hardest as it is easier for Israelis to find an alternative job."
Farber explained that the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis is mostly between two governments. "It should be emphasized that Israeli and Palestinian employees in our hotels work in harmony and they are a symbol of the coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. Everyone believes that tourism is the leading exporting industry of Israel and of the Palestinian authority. And tourism will bring us to an economic independence. The crisis in tourism escalates the conflict."
Officials with Israel's Ministry of Tourism (IMOT) report that the number of tourists dropped from 2.7 million in the year 2000 to 1.2 million in 2001, a decline of 55 percent. This year looks far worse. Jerusalem, visited by some 80 percent of Israel's tourists, has been hit especially hard. Tsion Ben-David, IMOT's director of North American operations, says hotel occupancy in Jerusalem hovers at a dismal 27 percent.
Museums have lost much of their income. The number of visitors to the city's Tower of David Museum, on the edge of the Old City, dropped from 550,000 in the year 2000 to 41,000 in 2001.
The Israel Museum, a complex of archeological and national treasures, lost a significant number of visitors in the last two years. Some 425,000 visitors passed through its doors in the violent year of 2001, down from 700,000 in 2000, and the record-breaking 820,000 visitors the museum hosted in 1999.
Further north, at a museum housing a 2,000-year-old fishing boat once buried on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, tourism has dropped 80 percent. Marina Banai, marketing manager for The Galilee Boat museum, says electricity alone costs $60,000 a year. A special, and costly, temperature and humidity level are necessary to preserve the ancient boat, possibly used by Jesus and His disciples. "We are not bringing in enough income to continue operating much longer," Banai worries.
"The drastic reduction in the number of visitors and the consequent drop in our income are obviously having a serious effect on us," say officials at The Garden Tomb, which is owned and administered by The Garden Tomb (Jerusalem) Association, a charitable trust based in the United Kingdom.
But they maintain a hopeful perspective: "We are determined to stay open so that pilgrims can visit this holy site and so that believers can pray in the peace of the Garden. These are difficult days, but we are not downcast or defeated. We know the One who conquered fear and death. In His strength we face the future with hope and joy."