Once infamous as a hotbed of hostility and terrorism against Israel, Nablus is now thriving with a mall, a movie theater and the head offices of the Palestinian Securities Exchange. The city is also more recently becoming a tourist destination with key biblical sites like Joseph's Tomb, Jacob's Well and an ancient Samaritan community nearby attracting tourists through the checkpoints from Israel.
With biblical sites, a new cinema and an old city where merchants sell spices, olive oil and the famous cheese sweet knafeh, this Palestinian city is turning out to be a West Bank gem. Just a few years ago, unreachable by foreigners, Nablus' recent economic upturn has opened a new door to tourism. The city was isolated and inaccessible during the intifada as Israeli checkpoints cut off the area from non-Palestinians. Nablus was not alone in this predicament.
Fear of violence and the prospect of crossing military checkpoints kept tourists away from many Palestinian sites in the last decade. While the intifada raged from 2000 to 2005, holy sites in Palestinian areas fell by the wayside in terms of tourism. Even Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, suffered from a drastic drop in visitors as a majority of tourists to the Holy Land avoided the West Bank and stuck to sites within Israel.
"I was a little worried about going back to Bethlehem late last year, but this time, I experienced nothing but friendliness from the people there," said Dan Wooding, the founder and international director of Assist News. "This visit to Bethlehem, was completely different to the one I made back in 2001 with my wife Norma. Then, we were held up by Palestinian gunmen. This last trip to Bethlehem was completely different - I went on my own - and the town was completely peaceful."
Now, as tourism to Israel is reinvigorated by several years of relative calm, tourism to the Palestinian territories has also picked up. Out of the 3 million tourists that came to Israel, more than half visited Bethlehem last year. In 2009, 1.7 million foreign tourists visited the West Bank. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported that the number of guests staying in Palestinian hotels tripled since 2006 to over 450,000 people. So far 2010 could outperform last year's record with the year's first two quarters on pace to surpass 2009.
Since 2006 to 2009, the overall West Bank rooms supply has increased dramatically with a compound annual growth rate of over 25% while the corresponding number of guest nights rose at compound annual growth rate of over 40% during the same period. Clearly, should the strong growth continue, demand will soon outstrip supply, and, according to those in the industry, there is already a need for more higher end properties. So far all indicators point to 2010 is being a banner year. , Despite these increasing numbers, many destinations in the Palestinian territories, however, remain a largely untapped market for tourism.
The Middle East Quartet, a diplomatic peace initiative comprised of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, has been working to build up the Palestinian economy, and has identified tourism as the sector that can make the quickest impact on the Palestinian economy.
"The tourist assets in the West Bank are unrivaled," said Ian Smith, business adviser to Office of the Quartet Representative Tony Blair.
In a speech at Conde Nast Traveler World Savers Congress in September, Quartet Representative and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said tourism is one "huge economic opportunity for the Palestinian people."
The West Bank is ripe, Blair said, for a "major joint marketing campaign" with Israel to promote tourism to the Holy Land.
"Tourism is obviously an area that we believe is under exploited," Smith said. "There are 3 million visitors to Israel and the West Bank in one year and yet 4 million to the London Eye ferris wheel each year."
Smith said that for every dollar spent by tourists in the Holy Land 90 cents goes to Israelis and 10 cents to Palestinians. Visitors spend less time in the West Bank than in Israel and few spend the night.
A panel made up of officials and business people from both Israeli and Palestinian tourism industries, working under the auspices of the Quartet, has been brought together to promote tourism to all parts of the Holy Land as an integrated concept, not exclusively to Israel or Palestine.
"Cooperation allows both Israelis and Palestinians to offer a variety of travel packages designed to reach new, and for the most part, untapped markets," said Elisa Moed CEO of Traveluah, an Israel based Holy Land tour and travel site aimed at Christians interested in visiting the Holy Land. "If the increasing numbers on tourism were the same anywhere else in the world, the industry would be on fire. But here it is not - yet."
This concept of working together on the ground level complements the peace process, said Tim Williams, movement and access adviser for the Quartet.
"Israel and the West Bank are a single unit when it comes to tourism," Williams said. "It can be sold as a single entity, which means you can increase size of the tourism market. And increasing the regional market is mutually advantageous."
One goal is to enable tour operators to approach Holy Land tourism cohesively. During the intifada most Israeli tours ended up dropping visits to the West Bank and itineraries featured only the traditional sites in Israel.
With the Quartet's urging in the past two years, additional crossings into Bethlehem for tourists were promised, the northern checkpoint Jalameh has been opened, several West Bank checkpoints and roadblocks have been removed, Israeli tour guides are now allowed into Bethlehem and Jericho, and a route called the Footsteps of Christ is being promoted, starting from Nazareth in Israel, leading south to Jericho and Bethlehem.
Ibrahim Hafi, general director of Palestinian Tourism Services, said the Palestinians are already feeling a positive effect of the changes. And with better policing in the territories, it is much safer these days.
"You can come and go easily. In the past three years, nothing bad has happened," he said. Five years ago maybe there were some problems. Today, you will notice there is a difference."
Smith maintains that the West Bank has much to offer in terms of tourism.
"It's not just interesting for Christians, but people who want to see a different side of life than Tel Aviv," he said. "In Jericho, you have the Mount of Temptation on one side, the Jordanian skyline on the other. It could've been Moses looking over the Holy Land."
Moed said that Christian tours would benefit from expanding the normal repertoire and adding to their itineraries sites in the West Bank.
"With Christians representing more than 60 percent of tourism arrivals, Christian tourism is the largest and fastest growing segment of tourism to the Holy Land and affords the greatest opportunity for future growth," Moed added. "If Christian tours were to include sites in Jericho, Hebron and Nablus, tours would be more diverse and, offered together in cooperation with Israelis and including sites in Israel these visits would help to not only drive the Palestinian tourism sector, but drive the region as a whole."
West Bank Travel is Rich in Biblical Significance
The West Bank is rich with tourism treasures Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, boasts ruins and a Greek Orthodox monastery on the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted by Satan. A cable car brings people from the lowest city on earth up to the cliffs near the monastery. Nearby on the banks of the Jordan river is Qasr al Yahud, the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
In Nablus is Joseph's Tomb, Jacob's Well and an ancient Samaritan community and its church. Nearby Sebastia is home to ruins from six successive cultures dating back 10,000 years.
On the outskirts of Jenin is a church partially built into a cave where Jesus is believed to have healed the 10 lepers. The Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah, is in Hebron.
Even though tourism is increasing, Israeli and Palestinian industries still lag relative to other countries. Moed is upbeat, however, and believes that the private sector, working together with common goals, "can be a positive vehicle for cooperation, trust, economic development and a model for peace."