First Published: 2017-08-31

Palestinians hope for more Muslim tourists
Muslims are relatively small part of Holy Land's religious tourism market, but Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the illegally occupied West Bank are vying for their business.
Middle East Online

Al-Aqsa is the most important shrine in Islam after Saudi Arabia's Mecca and Medina.

TEL AVIV - On any given day, Muslim pilgrims arrive at a Middle East airport on a journey to one of Islam's holiest sites.

At Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, they rub shoulders with larger groups of visitors - diaspora Jews and Christian tourists - many of them headed for the same destination, a 45-minute drive away: the sacred city of Jerusalem.

The Muslims are only a small part of the Holy Land's religious tourism market. But both Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which is illegally occupied by Israel, are vying for their business.

They come mainly to pray at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, in a compound that is one of the world's most contested and volatile holy sites. Al-Aqsa is the most important shrine in Islam after Saudi Arabia's Mecca and Medina, but less of a draw for foreign Muslims, many of whose countries spurn Israel or its claim of sovereignty over the eastern sector of Jerusalem, seized in the 1967 war.

Israel's Tourism Ministry recorded 115,000 Muslim tourists in 2016 - 3 percent of the 3.8 million foreigners who arrived at its airports or land borders it controls with Jordan and Egypt.

Half of these Muslim tourists identified as pilgrims, the ministry said. Most of them - around 100,000 - came from Turkey, which recognises Israel. But there were also some from Indonesia and Malaysia, which do not, and whose citizens Israel admits under special provisions for pilgrims.

Each Muslim tourist spends an average of $1,133 on the trip, the Israeli ministry said. Palestinians fret that too much of that goes to Israel and want the tourists to opt for alternative Palestinian venues in Jerusalem or the West Bank.

"We have been conducting a campaign to introduce Turkish tourist companies to Palestinian hotels in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and we have started to see many of them booking their rooms in these hotels," said Jereyes Qumseyah, spokesman for the Palestinian Tourism Ministry.

He said the Palestinians have permanent displays at major tourism conferences in Turkey.

The Palestinian ministry offered no statistics on the scope of foreign tourism to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But Qumseyah said Palestinians are also enjoying "big success" in teaming up their tour companies with counterparts in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Arab world so to draw more pilgrims.

- Politics and Religion -

Beyond the economic benefits, Palestinians see such visits as cementing pan-Islamic sympathy for their goal of establishing a state with East Jerusalem - whose walled Old City is dominated by Al-Aqsa and the gilded Dome of the Rock - as their capital.

To that end, Palestinian religious authorities dispute an edict by Youssef Al-Qaradawi of Egypt, Sunni Islam's top cleric, that non-Palestinian Muslims should not go to Jerusalem lest they be perceived as validating Israeli rule.

Even for Palestinians, access is not a given: Since their 2000 uprising against Israel, it has routinely restricted their travel to Jerusalem from the West Bank and imposed a tighter clampdown on the Gaza Strip, which is under Islamist Hamas rule.

Still, the senior Palestinian cleric, Grand Mufti Mohammad Hussein, sounded cautiously optimistic about foreign pilgrims.

"An increasing number of Muslims are visiting Al-Aqsa. Maybe the numbers are not as high as we had hoped, but we hope they will increase in days to come," he told Reuters.

One British pilgrim, Adeel Sadiq, came to Al-Aqsa this week with 15 fellow Britons. "We want to show our support to the people here, that you are not alone and Al Masjed Al Aqsa (Al-Aqsa mosque) is for all Muslims," he told a Palestinian reporter.

Israel has no counter-campaign aimed at attracting Muslim pilgrims. The Israeli Tourism Ministry said its marketing budget is allocated to countries in North and South America, Europe and the Far East and Russia, and does not include Turkey.

At the height of tensions in Jerusalem last month over Israeli controls on access to Al-Aqsa, Turkey's Islamist-rooted president, Tayyip Erdogan, urged his compatriots to flock there in solidarity with the Palestinians.

The general manager of Turkish Airlines followed up with an ad offering $159 round-trip flights to "Jerusalem" - though in fact the planes land at Ben Gurion. Israel's envoy to Ankara, Eitan Na'eh, tweeted in turn: "We will always be glad to warmly welcome Turkish tourists to Israel and our capital Jerusalem."

 

Kurds ready for contentious vote in Iraq

The high cost of Syria’s destruction

Iran defies US, tests missile

Yemen's Hadi says military solution 'most likely'

The Sahara Forest Project, Jordan’s innovative water scheme

Palestinian negotiator awaits lung transplant in US

A Kurdish state: Reality or utopia?

Saudi intercepts missile fired from Yemen

Saudi Arabia marks national day with fireworks, concerts

Turkey warns of 'security' steps in response to Iraqi Kurd vote

Barzani delays Kurdish independence vote announcement

Syria's war off the radar at UN assembly

For many Iraqis, tradition trumps police

Darfur clashes kill 3 as Bashir urges reconciliation

Saudi cleric banned for saying women have ‘quarter’ brain

Veteran Syrian activist, daughter assassinated in Istanbul

Tunisia drops forced anal exams for homosexuality

Bomb used in Saudi-led strike on Yemen children US-made

Syria Kurds vote to cement federal push

Police charge teenager over London Underground attack

Nigerian official to meet Turkish counterpart over illegal guns

Thousands feared trapped in Raqa as IS mounts last stand

Iraqi forces achieve first step in new offensive on IS

Migrant boat sinks off Turkish Black Sea coast leaving four dead, 20 missing

Trump praises 'friend' Erdogan

Yemen leader promises UN to open entire country to aid

Rouhani vows Iran will boost missiles despite US criticism

Russia clashes with EU over Syria

UN Security Council warns against holding Iraqi Kurd vote

UN sets up probe of IS war crimes in Iraq

US, Iranian top diplomats confront each other for first time

Air strikes kill 22 civilians in northwest Syria in 48 hours

Iranian supreme leader lashes out at Trump UN speech

Thousands of Huthi supporters mark 3 years since Sanaa takeover

Iraq attacks all remaining IS territory at once

Moscow accuses US of hitting Syrian regime forces

Turkey jails lawyers representing hunger striking teachers

Turkey, Iran and Iraq make joint threat against Kurd vote

Syrian Kurds to hold first local elections in federal push

Qatari expats lauded as statesmen by Arab critics

Shipwreck off Libyan coast leaves over 100 migrants missing

Will Turkey’s opposition to Kurdish state translate into action?

US ups the ante on Iraq Kurds

Macron: Iran nuclear deal no longer enough

Trump’s mind made up on Iran but refuses to divulge