Tourism in the West Bank

Tourism in the West Bank


Current Situation

For decades Israeli tourist agencies have had a monopoly on archeological and historical sites on the West Bank. After the Palestinians were granted some sort of independence, signing the Oslo-agreement in 1993, tourism became one of the most promising pillars in the developing economy. Millions of dollars were invested in projects such as construction of hotels, recreation resorts, restaurants and so on. One has to realize what is at stake; around 2.5 billion USD comes in every year from tourists who visit the Holy Land, especially the Old City of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Unfortunately for the Palestinian tourist agencies, most of the money goes to Israeli agencies. This is a direct result of unfair competition. There are several reasons for this inequity:

Rumors are spread that travelling in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is not safe because of terrorism when in fact not one tourist has ever been targeted by terrorist organizations.

Movement restrictions on Palestinians (in this case the guides and tour operators) give them a great disadvantage in comparison to their Israeli competitors. For example an Israeli agency has the ability to pick up incoming guests from the airport while Palestinian agencies need to apply for a permit to go into Israel.

Restrictions on construction activities in the West Bank (Area C) slow down the development of the tourist sector; while at the same time Jewish colonies are building hotels and resorts (see “Selection of events” below).

Israeli tourist agencies make no distinction between the West Bank and Israel. For example, maps do not show the border between Israel and the West Bank. (the Israeli Ministry of Tourism provides potential visitors with the following map through a link on their website) As a result tourists get the impression that all the sites they visit are within Israel.

Israeli tourist agencies have no problem whatsoever passing checkpoints and taking tourist into Palestinian territories, whereas Palestinian agencies are unable to organize tours to Israel.

The annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel has placed the most important tourist attractions in the West Bank under complete Israeli jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Palestinian tourism enterprises in the rest of the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip have been deprived of markets, finance, training and policy guidance under military occupation, which pays scant attention to the complex needs of this potential vital sector of the Palestinian economy. 

The presence of colonies in the West Bank damages some historical sites. On the other hand, since some of the colonists are active in the tourist sector, they become a major competitor for a share of the tourist dollars.

Some of the above mentioned restrictions are taken from reports of the United Nations Conference on Trade and development (UNCTAD), 1995 and 1997 and are still in effect at the present. Numbers and Examples


West Bank












27,9 %

54,4 %

Number of tourists1

214,220 (1998)

2,010,400 (1997, excluding Eilat tourists)

Travel agencies2


300 +

Tour guides2


Not available


  • 1: Data for the West Bank was obtained from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, as of March 1999 while data for Israel was obtained from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, 1998.

  • 2: Data for the West Bank was obtained from the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Archeology, 2000 while data for Israel was obtained from the Israeli Yellow Pages, tourism, 2000.

The number of tour guides indicates that more people have good confidence in the future of the tourist sector, while in 1967 the total number was 154, it dropped to 47 in 1995 and has inclined to 102 at present. In 1995, the total revenue of the tourism sector in 1995 was 152 million USD, about 5.5 % of the total revenue spent in the Holy Land that year. East Jerusalem accounted for 86 % of all tourism revenues. (Source: MAS, Ramallah, 1997)

The number of tourists visiting Palestine declined from 229,712 in 1996, to 220,850 in 1997, into 214,220 in 1998; (Source: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 1998). Although numbers are not yet available, but an increase is expected for the year 2000, because of the Millenium celebrations.

One can regret unfair competition but justify it by pointing at the working of a free market mechanism. But this is not the case in the competition between Palestinian and Israeli tourist agencies. Besides the movement restrictions imposed upon Palestinians and the points mentioned in the Current Situation chapter, the tourist sector faces yet more threats. The vast amount of land confiscation and the damaging effects on the tourism sector caused by the presence of colonies in the West Bank is made clear by the following examples:

Selection of events

A selection of events noted in newspapers about activities in colonies that damage the Palestinian economy:

  • April 17, 2000 – The Israeli Civil Administration is planning to establish a tourist resort center near the colony of Bet Ain, which was built over plots confiscated from the Arab villages of Nahalin, Surif, and Jaba, in Hebron District. (location number 2 in Map)

  • February 26, 2000 – A group of American Jewish immigrants to Israel were planning to build a luxurious Jewish neighborhood on seized Palestinian land at the depopulated Arab village of Lifta in West Jerusalem. The planned neighborhood would include three luxurious flats, a large hotel, a big mall, and a large tourist resort. (location number 3 in Map)

  • February 20, 2000 – The Nature Reserves and National Parks Authority discovered that sewage from homes in the West Bank colony of Adam, east of Jerusalem's Neve Yaakov colony, is seriously contaminating the springs that feeds into Wadi Qelt, creating a stench and killing animal life. (location number 4 in Map)

  • February 18, 2000 – An article appeared in 'Al-Ayyam' daily stated that the Israeli government recently endorsed plans to construct four large hotels on confiscated private Palestinian land in the vicinity of the former British High Commissioner's residence, in East Jerusalem. (location number 5 in Map)

  • October 3, 1999 – Press reports wrote about Israeli plans being carried out by the Jerusalem Municipality in conjunction with the Jerusalem’s Development Authority to build a new colony city on an 11-dunum plot at Wadi El Joz neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The plans include the construction of a 200- bedroom hotel, medical center, kindergartens, and multi-purpose halls. The new site is located at the vegetable market (El-Hesba area) northeast of the Old City near Rockefeller Museum. (location number 6 in Map)

  • September 17, 1999 – An article appeared in ‘Al-Hayyat Al-Jadeeda’ daily stating that the Israeli Housing Ministry recently endorsed a plan to construct a huge Israeli tourist colony on thousands of dunums of seized land south of Bethlehem in the Etzion Block. The project will be called “The Small Switzerland”, which aims at converting large stretches of land between Bethlehem and Hebron to tourist areas. (location number 7 in Map)

For an example of how colonies try to take their piece of the tourist income click on the following name to here to see their websites: Gushezi, Shechem and Kedumim colonies. (locations number 7, 8 and 9 respectively in Map)

Abu Ghneim Mountain

The mountain hosts many Christian holy sites, including St.Theodore’s Well, the 5th and 6th century Byzantine monastery and the church of Bir Qadisum, which marks the place where St.Mary dismounted before giving birth to Jesus. Some of these ruins might be destroyed during the development of the Har Homa colony, although it is not unlikely that these sites will be turned into an attraction for tourists or Christian pilgrims.

Furthermore, in the valley near Abu Ghneim is the Shepherd’s Fields. At the moment Israel is building a tourist village on Abu Ghneim, Bethlehem Israel, that overlooks these fields (see planning scheme). It is not unthinkable that this colony will also organize tourist trips to Bethlehem and surroundings, creating yet more competition for Palestinian agencies (See location number 1 in Map). For more details click on 'The Destruction of Abu Ghnaim Forest – in pictures' and 'The Har Homa Settlement and the Uprooting of Abu Ghnaim Forest' on ARIJ main page.

Case study on Wadi Al-Massri

Undermining of the Palestinian tourism sector is an ongoing activity, as the following case study will show. It is about the attempted confiscation of a historical site near the colony of Efrat, the pollution of an old well and the ongoing harassment of the Palestinian owner of the land. (location number 10 in Map)

ARIJ-fieldworkers interviewed Ahmed Yousef Abu Shama who lives in the village of Al-Khader. He owns about 6 dunums on a location called Wadi Almassri close to the colony of Efrat. On his land is a well, called Rass Al Ein and an archeological site (see photo). On January 18 this year colonists demolished the fence surrounding his land, uprooted trees and opened a road to let tourists reach the well and the site (see photos 1 & 2). Abu Shama called the Israeli Civil Administration to complain about this action but he received no help at all. Then he called the Palestinian manager for archeology affairs, Omar Salah and reported that 40 meters of his land was taken in addition to the well. No clear help came from this side either. & ). Abu Shama called the Israeli Civil Administration to complain about this action but he received no help at all. Then he called the Palestinian manager for archeology affairs, Omar Salah and reported that 40 meters of his land was taken in addition to the well. No clear help came from this side either.




On May 20, Abu Shama began building a fence around his land. While working on this fence he was attacked by members of the Efrat council and the man in charge of tourist affairs of the colony. They told Abu Shama that the archeological site was theirs and that they were planning to make it a tourist attraction. Abu Shama never thought of the possibility of using the site for tourism since he uses it for agricultural purposes. Indeed it guarantees the main source of income not only for him but for several other villagers as well. After more discussion, Abu Shama showed documents proving the ownership of the land. The Efrat colonist backed off but Abu Shama doesn’t believe he has seen the last of them. At this moment construction on the road from Efrat colony to the site is still going on, fences have arisen, colonists have placed a caravan near the well. Furthermore, part of the colony’s sewage water is released just meters away from the well. It isn’t hard to imagine what effect this has on the villagers’ land (see photo). All these activities are making life for Abu Shama and the other six owners very difficult.


Solutions ?

What can be done to improve the situation of Palestinian tourist agencies? Above all the sources of the backward position should be removed. This means that colonies on the West Bank, which according to several international and bilateral agreements should be dismantled, should not be active in the tourism sector. Furthermore, Israeli policy makers should refrain from favoring Israeli agencies when it concerns West Bank activities, be more generous with permits for Palestinian tourist guides, create a just and equal relationship with Palestinian tourist agencies and not pretend the West Bank does not exist. Furthermore, damage caused to archeological sites should be compensated. Basically this comes down to recognition and acceptance of the Palestinian tour agencies.

Palestinian tour agencies should, besides investing in accommodation and infrastructure, improve facilities for tourists, restore historical sites, create liaisons with tourist ministries abroad, promote their services at international affairs, place commercials and adds in countries whose inhabitants are most likely to visit the country and make them aware of the Palestinian land. Maybe a tour that shows all the colonies and their influence on the land would be a commercial success.

But most of all, the Palestinian tourism sector needs a just and sustainable peace in order to reach its full economic potential. 



Prepared by:
The Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem

Categories: Reports