UK to promote West Bank as tourist destination

The West Bank has a reputation for instability, military checkpoints and the ever-present threat of war with Israel.

UK to promote West Bank as tourist destination

The West Bank has a reputation for instability, military checkpoints and the ever-present threat of war with Israel.

But the UK is to promote the region as a sun, beach and wildlife destination for British tourists.

To the uninitiated, the image of the Palestinian territories is unlikely to be one of flip flops, suntan lotion and pre-dinner gin-and-tonics as a herd of elephants wanders across the horizon.

But for a small group of leading British tourism experts on a fact-finding mission in the West Bank led by the UK Trade & Investment ministry, a state that does not officially exist is also one that brims with secret promise.

The West Bank boasts a surprising number of scenic spots like the dramatic, undulating desert hills of the Wadi Qelt.

Intrepid tourists who venture here might not spot an elephant, but they are almost certain to catch a glimpse of its closest biological relative, the hyrax.

A family of these rodent-like animals, similar in appearance to the humbler guinea pig, attracted the enthusiastic attention of the British experts, who studied them closely through a telescope.

But if the prospect of an oversized guinea pig doesn’t have the British flocking into the West Bank, the hyraxes’ backyard might prove a more marketable tool.

Stretching down towards Jericho, the rolling hills where Jesus is believed to have wandered for forty days afford a hostile but spectacular vista of desert interspersed with oases of palm and ziziphus trees. The ruins of a Roman aqueduct lay nearby, while a monastery atop the Mount of Temptation was visible in the distance.

Britons who come here could trek the valley and swim in oasis springs, according to Imad Atrash, head of the Palestinian Wildlife Society. Wadi Qelt is also an important roosting spot for migratory birds.

It is this potential that led to the British government, with the prime minister’s backing, pledging to market the West Bank as a tourism destination.

Yet there were also reminders that the West Bank remains under Israeli military occupation. Jewish settlements nestled on top of two hills above the wadi, scarring the image of isolation, while a sudden burst of gunfire signalled the presence of nearby Israeli military range.

“The product needs to be developed if it is to be successful,” said Paul Taylor of UK Trade & Investment, the leader of a mission that included a post-conflict tourism adviser and other British experts in tourism development. “There is an image problem that needs to be addressed.”

Mr Taylor insisted that a trip to the West Bank would be no holiday from hell, pointing out that the security situation has improved.

Indeed, the Foreign Office no longer warns against travel to the West Bank although it does caution tourists that “the situation remains fragile and could deteriorate at short notice”.

Yet other obstacles remain, not least the lack of a Middle East peace deal.

But the experts also worried about the lack of suitable holiday infrastructure and the fact that much of the West Bank’s existing tourism sector is controlled by Israel.

The shoreline of the Dead Sea, one obvious attraction, lies in an Israeli military zone closed to Palestinians and resorts there fall under Israeli jurisdiction.

Similarly Bethlehem, the West Bank’s major tourism destination, only attracts mostly religious day-trippers who overnight in Jerusalem, meaning that 85 per cent of tourism revenue is lost.

Even so, the mission seemed convinced that West Bank tourism remains a viable project.

“I’m really enthused by it,” said Alison Cryer, chairman of the Tourism Society which represents over 1,000 British tourism professionals. “I can’t see anything but potential.”

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