By Tony Khashram
Travel to Palestine began in the form of pilgrimages: Muslims, Christians, and Jews traveled to the Holy Land to see the places that are sacred to their respective religions. For the local people, each pilgrim offered an opportunity to make money. In former times, travelers arrived on foot from as far away as Russia, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia and required accommodation, food, and transportation for several months at a time. With the advent of modern transportation, journeys became shorter in duration, but the number of tourists increased exponentially.
As travel became cheaper and more widely available, visits to the Holy Land expanded outside the bounds of the traditional pilgrimages. Pilgrims still make up a significant portion of visitors to Palestine, with religious tourists flocking to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi in Hebron. There are over forty popular holy sites to visit, among them the Dome of the Rock, the Last Supper room, the Mount of Olives, the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, and Qasr al-Yahud on the Jordan River.
The number of visitors arriving in Palestine for nonreligious travel is on the rise. Adventure seekers can walk on the Palestinian Heritage Trail (around 500 kilometers long, stretching from Rummana to Beit Mirsim to Artas) or bike between villages. The Palestinian landscape holds the remains of numerous cultures that have crossed the country: Roman ruins, Crusader citadels, third-century Christian churches, twelfth-century Islamic mosques, Sufi shrines, Mamluk homes, and Ottoman architecture. It is a land of green grapevines and silver-green olive trees, brunet cliffs of stone, and golden dunes of sand. Steep hills invite hikers to ascend and enjoy the view, and more level terrain suits everyone for walking.
Others follow the path of migratory birds, as they make their way through Palestine, traveling along one of the main routes for birds migrating from Europe to Africa in September and October and back again in March and April. Among the birds that frequently pass through the Gaza Strip are various types of quail, while the Egyptian vulture, lappet-faced vulture, pallid harrier, and ruddy shelduck can be seen as well.
In addition to over 100 historic places that are worth a visit, there are four World Heritage sites and 13 sites on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites that you must see and experience in Palestine.
Foodies enjoy local culinary delights that range from the more familiar hummus, falafel, and shakshuka to the equally delicious maqloobeh, musakhan, and knafeh. In Palestine, a boundless variety of food is offered with combinations that differ from season to season, from street to home, from city to village, from the coast to the mainland, and even from north to south. Each governorate has its own specialties and enigmas, with cooks priding themselves on the quality of their ingredients and their individuality. Even though culinary distinctions exist among regions, there are still the same old-style and essential basics of Palestinian cooking, such as olive oil, olives, beans, legumes, yogurt, seasonal vegetables, and quality meat and fish. Palestinian culture rotates around food. From day-to-day life to weddings and celebrations, food plays an important role in every aspect of life: It is about spending time with family and friends and making an event special and out of the ordinary.
Wine connoisseurs can tour the Cremisan and Taybeh wineries, while beer enthusiasts can book a visit to the Taybeh and Shepherd breweries. Wine has been produced in Palestine for many years, as it is not only an important factor in religious rituals but also a necessity for many social interactions, general dietary consumption, and therapeutic purposes.
In addition, no matter their interests, tourists can find a festival, museum, or exhibition that suits their fancy during their visit to Palestine. Dar Zahran Heritage Building, Yasser Arafat Museum, Palestinian Heritage Center, Mahmoud Darwish Museum, Bab idDeir Art Gallery, the International Nativity Museum, The Palestinian Museum, and other historical, artistic, and culturally interesting sites are available for visits.
The service sector in Palestine is well developed because of the influx of visitors who require specialized personnel within the sector, which has led to the evolution of the tourism sector. Today, inbound tourism is the core of the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. During the year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1.5 million tourists arrived in the Palestinian territories, 450,000 of whom came through Palestinian inbound tour operators.
Sites included on the World Heritage List:
Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem;
Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir, Bethlehem Governorate (considered endangered);
Al-Khalil Old Town, Hebron Governorate (considered endangered); and
Old City and Walls of Jerusalem (considered endangered).
The beneficiaries of incoming tourism are not limited to the 63 Palestinian inbound tour operators* but include as well the owners and employees of 210 accommodation options (hotels, guesthouses, and homestays across Palestine) and 1,250 transportation options (including buses and vans). Hundreds of handicraft producers and souvenir shops rely heavily on the purchases of foreign visitors. Dozens of specialized restaurants serve local dishes to tired and hungry travelers after a day of touring. And 650 licensed multi-lingual tour guides from varying backgrounds and specializations, including history, archaeology, theology, and anthropology, lead and educate visitors across Palestine.
Palestinian tourism service providers work constantly to develop the tourism industry that provides services that respect the religious beliefs of all sorts of visitors, value the freedom of religious worship, and appreciate cultural diversity. Tour guides provide valuable information to tourists, covering the religious, social, and cultural stories of Palestine and do not hesitate to challenge visitors by presenting different interpretations that mainly convey the Palestinian narrative.
Local hotels, restaurants, and means of transportation are an essential part of any visitor’s itinerary in Palestine. Palestinian handicrafts, an indispensable ingredient of any visit, include embroidery work, pottery making, soap making, glass making, weaving, and olivewood and mother-of-pearl carvings, among others.
The sites on the Tentative List of World Heritage:
Ancient Jericho: Tell Es-Sultan;
Mount Gerizim and the Samaritans, Nablus Governorate (not accessible to Palestinians);
Qumran: Caves and Monastery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jericho Governorate;
El-Bariyah: Wilderness with Monasteries, Mount of Temptation, Jericho Governorate;
Wadi Natuf and Shuqba Cave, Ramallah and Al-Bireh Governorate;
Old Town of Nablus and Its Environs, Nablus Governorate;
Tell Umm Amer, Gaza Strip;
Wadi Gaza Coastal Wetlands, Gaza Strip;
Baptism Site Eshria’a (Al-Maghtas), Jericho Governorate;
Sebastia, Nablus Governorate;
Anthedon Harbor, Gaza Strip;
Umm Al-Rihan Forest, Jenin Governorate; and
Throne Villages: Ibwein, Arrabeh, Beit Wazan, Burqa, Deir Ghassaneh, Deir Istia, Dura, Jamma’in, Kur, Nelean, Ras Karkar, Sebastia, and Sanur (spread throughout the West Bank).
The interconnectedness between the tourist and the Palestinian economy cannot be overstated – each service provider plays an important role in the experience of tourists, and tourists help provide a living for each service provider.
Article photos are courtesy of Palestinian Heritage Trail.
*Figures based on a 2019 survey undertaken by the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association (HLITOA).