PNN report: Palestine Hosts International Conference on Religious Tourism for the first time

PNN/ Bethlehem/

Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Rola Ma’aiya, Sunday met with PNN to discuss the upcoming conference on religious tourism, which will be held this week in Bethlehem.

The conference, chaired by the UNWTO, is aimed at encouraging international support for the Palestinian tourism sector, especially the religious one.

For decades, Palestine has been marketed as ‘the Holy Land’ and therefore, religious tourism constitutes the main sector.

“This conference is about religious tourism, because it is the most important for Palestinians. This is the Holy Land and people from all over the world come here for that reason” Ma’aiya told PNN.

International support is desperately needed: Israeli tour companies dominate the market for trips to the Holy Land. Tours are paid for and originate in East Jerusalem, barring Palestinian tour companies from access to whom should rightfully be their own clients.

These Israeli tours travel the West Bank, often without providing clear indication of the border between Israel and Palestine, and regularly advise against communication or business with Palestinian store holders at the religious sites.

Pilgrims come from all over the world to see religious sites such as the Nativity Church in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

However, during the Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014, the number of tourists entering Palestine dropped dramatically. During the summer it was down by 60% and by September it was still 30% down.

Rola Ma’aiya explains that the participants of the conference will come from all over the world, and among them are experts and officials. She hopes their presence will convince potential tourists that coming here is safe.

Some local tourism promoters like George Rishmawi, Executive Director for Masar Ibraham’s al-Khalil,  believe that a way forward is community-based tourism, which some believe to be neglected by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism.

“Religious tourism is the main form of tourism right now, so I think the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism has been working to sustain it, because there is a large sector benefiting from it. They have been trying to promote Palestine as a destination, which is their main interest. Therefore they have been encouraging community-based tourism to evolve. The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism is providing the right support for it, but I am sure there is a lot to do yet” Rishmawi told PNN.