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."


Abbas calls US ambassador to Israel 'son of a dog'

Saudi crown prince keen to cement ties with US

Pro-Turkish forces loot Afrin

Morocco authorities vow to close Jerada's abandoned mines

Iraqis flock to flea market for relics of bygone era

Human rights chief slams Security Council for inaction on Syria

US warns Turkey over civilians caught in Syria assault

Erdogan vows to expand Syria op to other Kurdish-held areas

Kurdish envoy accuses foreign powers of ignoring Turkish war crimes

Israeli soldier sees manslaughter sentence slashed

Turkey insists no plans to remain in Afrin

Cairo voters show unwavering support for native son Sisi

Forum in Jordan explores new teaching techniques

Gaza Strip woes receive renewed attention but no fix is expected

Kurds, Syrian opposition condemn Afrin looting

36 jihadists killed in Egypt’s Sinai

Israel arrests French consulate worker for gun smuggling

Israel prepares to demolish Jerusalem attacker's home

Saudi crown prince says his country to seek nuclear bomb if Iran does

Arab women artists in diaspora focus on identity and loss

Tunisia’s Central Bank targets inflation but may hurt growth prospects

Libya’s health system reflects a larger humanitarian crisis

Israel blasts Gaza underground tunnel

Abu Dhabi awards France's Total stakes in oil concessions

Erdogan says Afrin city centre under ‘total’ control

Egypt tries to contain Sudan but challenges, suspicions remain

US defence secretary presses Oman on Iran weapons smuggling

Syrian regime retakes two towns from Ghouta rebels

Hamas shutters mobile firm after Gaza attack on PM

Israel punishes family members of West Bank attacker

Syria opposition says UN 'failed to prevent' Assad 'crimes'

UK tries to soothe Egyptian anger over mob attack death

Hundreds of thousands flee in dual Syria assaults

Turkish Cypriots vow to stand firm in gas dispute

Intensifying assaults in Syria spark dual evacuations

Tearful reunions, uncertain fates for Syrians fleeing Ghouta

Iran deal signatories meet as Trump deadline looms

Thirty years on, Kurds remember Halabja massacre

Air India says will fly over Saudi airspace to Tel Aviv

UN chief calls for end to Lebanese 'meddling' in Syria

Turkey seeks jail for journalists opposing government

UN says civilians trapped, used as 'human shields' in Afrin

Iran, Russia, Turkey hold Syria talks in Astana

Civilians killed in Turkish fire on Syria's Afrin

US Defense Secretary says Iran 'mucking around' in Iraq elections