Joshua and his trumpets did a good job: The walls of Jericho are still down. In fact, it’s one of the most open cities in a region where others are bristling with concrete barriers, walls and fences dividing Palestinians and Israelis.
Palestinian tourism officials hope to breach these barriers — at least psychologically — by celebrating on 10/10/10 the 10,000th birthday of Jericho, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and part of Palestine’s West Bank.
The anniversary idea came from the success of the 2000 Millennium celebrations honoring sites associated with Jesus, the region’s star attraction. It remains to be seen whether political strictures and setbacks will continue to damp the Palestinians’ commercial ambitions.
My first visit to Jericho was in 1996, after the peace agreement signed three years earlier by Palestine and Israel known as the Oslo Accords. Off-limits areas had been opened, and I took a whirlwind, one-day West Bank tour.
The ruins of Jericho’s famous walls were little more than piles of rubble, without interpretive signs. Looming overhead was the Greek Orthodox monastery on Mount Temptation, known as the Quarantine, or 40 days, because it is built where Jesus supposedly met Satan while on a 40-day fast. It was a tempting site, but considering the more than 1,000-foot climb, not for a day trip.
Now there’s no need to climb. One impact of the Oslo Accords and the Millennium was a frenzy of construction in Jericho, including a $12 million cable car operation, opened in September 1999.
I used it to ascend, shamed by the unassisted climbs of breathless, elderly Catholic pilgrims. At the mountaintop restaurant, I met Kamel Sinokrot, the executive manager of the Telepherique and Sultan Tourist Center, which runs the cable car and is part of a group of Jericho tourism companies.
“We wish people could spend 40 days like Jesus did,” Sinokrot said. “It would be great for our occupancy rate, but one or two days is enough.”
We had a panoramic view of Jericho, surrounded by palms in a lush oasis, the Dead Sea in the distance.
A year after the cable car opened, the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israel, began, eviscerating the area’s tourism industry. Sinokrot told me Jericho was closed to outsiders and the cable car shut down in 2004. Restrictions were lifted the following year.
He said 50,000 visitors “came to Jericho that year. Now we have 800,000.”
With the 10,000th anniversary, Sinokrot expects this number to rise, and already in early 2010 the company “had 42 percent more visitors,” than early 2009.
Anniversary events will include a week of street festivals and tourism industry workshops, along with the development of new attractions and infrastructure.
The celebration is “part of the branding of Palestine” and “an important tool for developing the market,” said Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh, Palestine’s minister of tourism and antiquities. “This area has so much potential and yet is untapped.”
Telepherique and Sultan Tourist Center is planning a 70-room hotel on Mount Temptation, surrounded by what Sinokrot called “30 small boutique chalets.” The complex will mimic Quarantine’s exterior. Built in the 19th century on the site of the original sixth-century monastery, Quarantine has gilt woodwork, paintings of angels and a solitary Macedonian monk named Father Grasmos who poses with pilgrims under a crucifix bathed by a seemingly holy light.
After my own descent from Mount Temptation, I moved on to the decidedly secular five-star InterContinental Jericho, which cost $300 million and opened in September 1998 as a “hotel built for a casino,” according to resort manager Yousef Salman.
Outside there’s an empty pool and a bored bartender in a grotto. The sprawling Moorish lobby offers black-and-white stone arches and inlaid wood gleaming with polish.
At its peak, the resort had 6,000 daily visitors, virtually all Israelis, and a staff of 2,500. The intifada changed everything, Salman said.
With the closure of the border to Israel, the hotel and casino shut down in October 2000. The hotel reopened in 2005, yet it went from hosting high rollers to hoping for holy roamers. The casino remained closed.
“We started promoting to pilgrims,” Salman said, which meant he had to “compete with three-stars, since pilgrims don’t care for luxury.” To fill his 181 rooms, he was charging “$70 a night for a hotel that in Israel would cost $300,” he said. By early this year there was “a 56 percent increase in visitors from the same period in 2009.”
“Palestine is cheap and we have alcohol,” Salman says, offering me a taste of Cremisan wine from Bethlehem.
One-upping the Inter-Continental is the $2 billion Madenat Al-Qamar project, with residential areas, a hotel and water park, most of it planned for an area north of Jericho. Jamal Haddad, adviser to the chief executive officer of the Palestine Investment Fund, the Palestinian Authority’s investment arm, showed me the plans.
“Jericho is a city that throughout history never grew,” Haddad said. “This is part of the program to attract people to make it successful.” The development’s $80 million first phase is slated to begin early 2011, and will take about five years to finish.
“The Dead Sea is the only way for Jericho to expand,” said Haddad, mentioning a planned five-star resort complex called Moon Light City with a seaside esplanade.
Neighboring Israel and Jordan have thriving Dead Sea resorts, yet Palestine’s is a distant dream. All Palestinian land surrounding the Dead Sea is under Israeli military control for now and off-limits to development by Palestinian companies.
Tourism Minister Daibes-Abu Dayyeh remains unfazed.
“We plan as if all areas are under our control,” she said. Her office started feasibility studies for a Jericho airport that will be the country’s most important entry point.
“It is a main pillar of the ministry, to get this airport built,” she said, explaining that tourists currently fly into Tel Aviv or Amman, Jordan. Many visiting Jericho and other Palestinian sites are bused in from Jerusalem, unaware they are no longer technically in Israel.
Daibes-Abu Dayyeh sighed. “It is unique and challenging to promote the identity of a destination that does not exist politically.”
For more on Palestinian Tourism and Jericho, visit www.travelpalestine.ps.