BETHLEHEM, West Bank — For your next getaway, you might consider this: four nights and five days in sunny “Palestine: land of miracles”.
It’s a tough sell for a place that has become synonymous with Middle East violence, for a country not yet a country which does not even control all of its territory, let alone its major tourist attractions.
And yet the figures are up for the third year running. Palestinian tourism ministry records show that some 2.6 million tourists visited the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 2009.
Of those, more than 1.7 million were foreigners, just 1.2 percent fewer than in 2008 — a veritable miracle in itself at a time when the global economic slump has sent tourism plunging 10 percent across the rest of the region.
The fact that the Palestinian territories are part of the Holy Land accounts for a large part of the success.
Bethlehem, home to the Church of the Nativity built on what tradition holds to be the birthplace of Jesus, is the prime attraction. More than 80 percent of all tourists who come to the Palestinian territories visit Bethlehem.
“We do not have a sea or sport centres, we don’t have oil or fashion or nightclubs. Visitors must come as pilgrims,” said Bethlehem mayor Victor Batarseh.
Being a one-attraction destination has its drawbacks, however, and those who come do not spend either much time or money.
“Every day they come and visit our city, but just for 20 minutes,” said Adnan Subah, who sells olive wood carvings and pottery to tourists.
“They go from the bus into the church and then back on the bus,” he said, gesturing forlornly at his empty shop despite its prime location near the church on Manger Square.
Still, despite its “Palestine: land of miracles” slogan, the Palestinian tourism ministry says it has more to offer than just holy sites.
Brochures tout the wonders of the Turkish baths of Nablus, the cosmopolitan coffee-shops of Ramallah and the archaeological attractions of ancient Jericho.
But the glossy pamphlets often also gloss over the complex reality of a highly volatile region.
The ministry’s efforts are largely devoted to the myriad attractions of Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state.
But all of Jerusalem is controlled by Israel, which captured the eastern part of the Holy City in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community.
The Palestinian ministry leaflets also make no mention of Israeli army roadblocks or the West Bank separation barrier that includes an eight-metre- (26-foot-) high concrete wall that cuts off Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
Brochures even advise travellers to take in the sites of the Gaza Strip, renowned for its “relaxed seaside atmosphere”.
Today, tourists are not even allowed in to the isolated, war-ravaged enclave ruled by the Islamist movement Hamas, which in 2007 violently ousted secular forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
Since then, Israel and Egypt have imposed a strict blockade, allowing only basic humanitarian goods into the coastal territory.
Palestinian tourism minister Khulud Daibes, an urbane German-educated architect, says that while the brochures try to show everything the region has to offer, their actual focus is more realistic.
“We can’t promote all the Palestinian territory, so we are focusing on the triangle of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho,” she said. “That’s where we feel comfortable about safety issues and freedom of movement.”
Later this year, she plans to launch a “Jericho 10,000” campaign focusing on the Biblical city, believed to be one of the oldest in the world.
With its proximity to the Dead Sea, Jericho is already the most popular destination among Palestinian tourists themselves.
However, the minister’s greatest challenge is trying to foster and promote tourism to an occupied territory.
The Palestinians no longer have their own airport, and do not even control their border crossings into neighbouring Jordan and Egypt.
“It’s a challenge for us, how to be innovative and promote tourism under occupation,” she said.
“We need to get people to realise that behind the wall there is a good experience waiting, and get them to stay longer on the Palestinian side.”
Security is a key aspect in efforts to boost tourism.
US-trained Palestinian forces have managed to bring calm to the violence-wracked occupied territories in recent years, and this has gone a long way towards reassuring potential tourists.
“We had a very worried feeling all the time, but everything is okay,” said Juan Cruz, 27, from Mexico who visited Bethlehem for Christmas. “Everything is very safe and there are lots of police everywhere, so that is good.”
Another Palestinian goal is to bolster cooperation with Israel.
Despite lingering suspicions between the Palestinians and the Israelis, they acknowledge that cooperation is crucial for both sides.
“We want to cooperate. We believe the Holy Land is a place we should not argue about when it comes to pilgrims,” said Rafi Ben Hur, deputy director of Israel’s tourism ministry.
And both sides agree it is not just about tourist dollars.
“Tourism could be a tool to promote peace in this small corner of the world,” said Daibes.