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Sustainable Tourism in Palestine?

By Anna Khdair

Tourism is expanding through digital spaces and widening its scope beyond the conventional portfolio of predetermined places offered by tour agencies, allowing us to choose from many options, itineraries, and digital platforms available online, as each one of us can design individualized tours tailored to our personal needs. Now more than ever, traveling becomes desirable and awaited by many – we long for an opportunity to experience and discover with all our senses. But questions related to the multilayered impacts of tourism and the role of sustainable tourism remain to be addressed. This brief overview will present how tourism has contributed to entrenching Israel’s colonial project in Palestine through the facilitation of its territorial annexation and the normalization of its war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations. Furthermore, this article will explore the potential of sustainable and responsible tourism.

A sign put up by Israel’s Nature and Park Authority on the annexed and appropriated historical site in the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil, 2019. Author’s archive.

From the very beginning, the potential of touristic experiences and reproduced narratives was a prominent feature in Zionist propaganda’s toolbox and the international campaign of promoting its settler-colonial project in Palestine*1 constructed around Zionist narratives and images. It aimed to systematically erase other existing narratives that do not serve the colonial strategy of enforcing Jewish superiority, asserting continued Jewish presence, and securing the exclusive right of return to Palestine for adherents of its faith. Israel continues to invest in the marketing of tourism, conquering new digital spaces and supporting the development of illegal settlement tourism in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The 2018 general budget of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism was ILS 1.2 billion – including 44 percent for marketing, 23 percent for public tourist infrastructure, and 13 percent for investment incentives.*2 In order to boost tourism development in the illegal West Bank settlements, special financial aid and subsidies programs were launched to support the establishment of hotels, B&Bs, and guestrooms in residential settlements.*3

At the same time, tourism is an important economic asset for the deteriorating Palestinian economy that is projected to hover around 0.5 to 1.6 percent of the GDP between 2019 and 2021.*4 Palestine tourism displays significant advantages based on a combination of natural, historical, and archaeological sites and a high touristic demand from around the world. As an income and employment-generating industry, either through direct or indirect employment in other related sectors, its sustainable development would be crucial for Palestinian economy. Notwithstanding, tourism has been restricted to a very limited level of development that does not reflect its potential, due to the ongoing settler-colonial project of annexation, appropriation, dispossession, and forced displacement of the indigenous Palestinian people. Every year marks a significant financial loss for the Palestinian economy because important historic and touristic areas are off-limits for Palestinian business and tour operators not registered with Israel.*5

A group visiting the “City of David”, a settler tourism site in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem, endangered by demolitions and forced displacement, 2019. Author’s archive.

Israel, as the colonizer and occupying power of Palestine, de facto administers all access points to the Palestinian heritage, archaeological, and tourism sites in historical Palestine, currently reframed as Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt)/State of Palestine.

Effective territorial control enables Israel to persistently evade its obligations under international law, as its complex system of laws, policies, and practices thrives through the appropriation of Palestinian land that is arbitrarily designated as “abandoned” property or “state land,” expropriated for military reasons as “firing and military training zones,” or claimed for public needs by declaring it “natural reserves,” “natural habitats,” and archaeological sites. Israel furthermore evades its obligations through its settlement enterprise that captures the Palestinian economy, labor, and any potential sustainable development opportunities as well as through the exploitation of natural resources, including water, sun, energy, gas and oil, stone, or Dead Sea minerals. The strategic territorial fragmentation of the Palestinian people is enforced through laws and policies that serve as a main tool through which Israel imposes and maintains its apartheid regime. By dividing the Palestinian people into at least four separate geographic, legal, and political categories, Israel ensures that Palestinian refugees living outside mandatory Palestine, Palestinians living in the territory that became Israel in 1948, Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinians living in Jerusalem, cannot meet, group, live together, or exercise any collective rights, in particular their right to self-determination. These measures are strengthened by physical obstacles such as the annexation wall, checkpoints, gates, roadblocks, and other closure mechanisms that result in various movement and access restrictions, whereas a system of discriminatory policies and practices that include zoning and urban planning, building restrictions, and house demolitions enforce Israeli control of Palestinian territory in direct violation of international laws and conventions.

A strong commitment and effective measures from the international community, third states, and companies are needed to render tourism truly sustainable, embracing respect for the Palestinian host population and their human rights, and protecting their interest, heritage, identity, natural resources, and cultural wealth.

These facts on the ground are reflected in and entrenched through a systematic campaign of misinformation, propaganda, and marketing strategies that use distorted information, names, and maps while the employed epistemology and stories omit centuries of history in Palestine, including oral history and memories as well as archaeological layers that would contradict the Zionist narrative and evidence of an ancient Israelite and Jewish past embedded in the land.*6

A review of various promotional materials and maps produced for Israel’s tourism industry, distributed by the Israeli tourism information centers during the International Mediterranean Tourism Market and distributed online, corroborates a tendency to erase the existence of Palestinian heritage, identity, and communities.*7 For instance, the maps commissioned by the Israel Ministry of Tourism tend to offer no depiction of the Green Line, the “border” that separates the internationally recognized area of Israel from the occupied West Bank – described as “Judea and Samaria” – while only the main Palestinian towns are displayed, yet remain secondary in comparison to the illegal Israeli settlements. Another way of normalizing such erasure is the promotion of biblical and ahistorical maps that combine biblical names with some contemporary Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv. Such images, maps, and itineraries are distributed to foreign tourism companies and used by digital tourism platforms all over the world. A recent study on package tours to “Israel” reveals that 40 percent of itineraries from 100 tour operators in their online marketing contain false depictions of Palestinian towns and of tourism sites located in the occupied West Bank.*8 A distorted image is therefore redistributed via digital tourism companies such as Airbnb, Trip Advisor, Opodo, Expedia Group, eDreams ODIGEO, and Booking.com, which further contributes to violations of Palestinian rights and promotes Israel’s settlement tourism, built on illegally annexed land and appropriated touristic sites on their platforms.*9 In February 2020, the aforementioned companies were listed by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) among 112 other Israeli and international companies operating in and profiting from the illegal settlement enterprise, against international law. They consequently violate all global ethical standards for sustainable tourism, which, ironically, many of those companies still claim to respect and promote.

The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”*10 In the context of Israel’s ongoing settler-colonial project, belligerent occupation, and apartheid in Palestine, the interest of vulnerable Palestinian host communities should be placed at the forefront, and any attempt to operationalize sustainable tourism principles should be premised upon enhanced due diligence of human rights.*11

For instance, the promotion by Israel of Jerusalem as the “united capital of Israel” [sic!] forms part of its colonial strategy of unlawful annexation of the entire city.*12 Jerusalem is being advertised by most tourism companies and digital tourism platforms as located in Israel, including the companies that claim to promote sustainable and responsible tourism. The Old City of Jerusalem, part of the occupied Palestinian territory, is repositioned on the maps and in the tour guides and itineraries as an Israeli touristic destination. In addition, various policies and arbitrary decisions limit Palestinian residents’ ability to obtain permits for renovations that could add additional units to existing buildings or prevent them from investing in new properties.*13 Meanwhile, several Israeli urban planning projects are altering the demographic character of Jerusalem through the establishment of facts on the ground, including investment into settlements tourism, e.g., the City of David, the cable car, natural parks, and hotels.

Israel’s laws, policies, and practices that aim to annex, appropriate, dispossess, and displace the Palestinian people are normalized through a systematic campaign of misinformation that uses distorted information, names, and maps which are reproduced and used by international tourism actors and businesses with no respect for the rights of Palestinians as the host community and right holders, in violation of international law and standards of ethical, responsible, or sustainable tourism.

The involvement of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) has proved to be a significant tool in the attempt to legitimize land expropriation for touristic aims, as it administers most of the appropriated Palestinian natural and heritage sites whilst adopting an “environmentally friendly” narrative for greenwashing purposes. As one of its land appropriation tactics, Israel has been using the annexation of land under various pretexts to eventually turn it into archaeology excavation sites and then touristic attractions.xiv

Touristic aspects of the settlement enterprise are advertised and supported by the Israeli government and bring financial incentives for the Israeli settlers, legitimizing illegal settlements as business and entertainment hubs that are presented to the international audience as natural and ecological, therefore “sustainable tourism” options.*15 A similar development of Palestinian initiatives is severely hampered by Israel.

Disregard for human rights salient issues and Israel’s domination over and dispossession of the Palestinian host population effectively makes tourism unsustainable. Tourist businesses should neither profit nor contribute to these violations of Palestinian human rights. Foreign tourism agencies, companies, and tourist group operators must take into consideration the impacts of their business activities and conduct enhanced human rights due diligence.*16 For the sake of providing relevant and accurate sources of information, the international tourism actors have the obligation to stop using and spreading distorted and politicized tourism information that aims to legitimize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian land and violations of Palestinian rights.

Sustainable and responsible tourism in Palestine must take into account the context of the ongoing settler-colonization and prolonged occupation since 1948; it must recognize its role in the entrenchment of different forms of oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people. Various Palestinian tourism initiatives*17 strive to create platforms for information and online booking for independent travel around Palestine that would support the Palestinian local economy. As a part of alternative tourism, these initiatives would enable visitors to avoid harmful touristic impacts to some extent for those who visit and want to support Palestinian businesses.

*1 Halah Ahmad, “Tourism in Service of Occupation and Annexation,” Al-Shabaka, October 13, 2020, https://al-shabaka.org/briefs/tourism-in-service-of-occupation-and-annexation/.

*2 OECD, “OECD Tourism Trends and Policies 2020: Israel,” 2020, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/c0fde9b6-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/c0fde9b6-en#section-d1e52540.

*3 SOMO, GLAN, “Tainted Tourism: Package tourism’s contribution to the illegal settlement economy in Israeli occupied territories,” March 2021, p. 12.

*4 The World Bank, 2021, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/westbankandgaza/publication/economic-update-april-2019.

*5 See The World Bank, “Area C and the Future of the Palestinian Economy,” 2014.

*6 Nadia Abu El-Haj, Facts on the ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, The University of Chicago Press, 2001, p. 3.

*7 For more details and analysis, see the upcoming Al-Haq report on the notion of sustainable tourism in Palestine.

*8 SOMO, GLAN, op. cit., p. 4.

*9 See Human Rights Watch and Kerem Novot, “Bed and Breakfast on stolen land: Tourist Rental Listings in West Bank Settlements,” 2018, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/israel1118_web_0.pdf; Amnesty International, “Destination: Occupation: Digital Tourism and Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territories”, 2019, hhttps:www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE1594902019ENGLISH.PDF/.

*10 UNEP and UNWTO, “Making Tourism More Sustainable – A Guide for Policy Makers,” 2005, p. 12.

*11 See Roundtable Human Rights in Tourism, “Implementation Guidelines,” https://www.humanrights-in-tourism.net/implementation-guidelines.

 *12 See Al-Haq, “Annexing A City: Israel’s Illegal Measures to Annex Jerusalem Since 1948,” May 11, 2020, https://www.alhaq.org/publications/16855.html.

*13 Al-Haq, “Occupying Jerusalem’s Old City: Israeli Policies of Isolation, Intimidation and Transformation,” 2019, pp. 48–51.

*14 See Al-Haq, “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Village of Nabi Samwil,” 2018, https://www.alhaq.org/publications/8052.html

*15 Al-Haq, “Israel’s Tourism Expo in Tel Aviv: Promoting Settler Tourism in the OPT,” March 19, 2019, https://www.alhaq.org/advocacy/6087.html.

*16 OHCHR, “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework,” 2011, https://www.ohchr.org/documents/publications/guidingprinciplesbusinesshr_en.pdf.

*17 To mention some: Alternative Tourism Group: http://atg.ps/; Hantourism: https://hantour.ps/; Jerusalem Visitor Guide: http://www.enjoyjerusalem.com/; Visit Palestine: http://visitpalestine.ps/; Siraj Center: https://www.sirajcenter.org/.

  • Dr. Anna Khdair is the researcher and advocacy officer in the Legal Research and Advocacy Department of Al-Haq, focusing on business and human rights, decoloniality, and the role of discourse and narratives in ongoing Palestinian dispossession.

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