With Passover and Easter arriving simultaneously this year, the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City have been packed with tourists. But this sight can be deceiving. The capital’s tourism crisis, which began last summer, has yet to really pass. On the interim days of Passover, Jerusalem hotels were only about 60-percent full, and for the seder night and the last days of the holiday, capacity ranges from 80-85 percent.
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Aryeh Zumer, director of the Jerusalem Hotels Association, says these figures are about 20 percent lower than last year.
However, salvation for the city’s tourism industry may well come from a surprising source: Muslim countries, including Arab states.
Last week, a group of clerics from the Gulf states issued a ruling permitting and encouraging visits to Jerusalem. This fatwa (religious decree) now joins a growing political and religious debate that has been roiling the Arab world for the last three years; statistics show there has been a significant increase in the number of Muslim pilgrims coming to the city.
“People are afraid, but there are more and more people who want to come to Jerusalem,” says Ra’ad Atiya, owner of the HLA Tours travel agency in Bethlehem, which specializes in bringing groups of Muslim tourists to Israel. “If Israel would change its approach, I think millions would come. I’m sure of it,” he says. “There’s no difference between them and Christian pilgrims from Europe and America.”
In absolute numbers, Muslims still comprise a minority of visitors to Israel, but in the last few years their number has grown significantly.
Last year, Israel welcomed 26,700 tourists from Indonesia; 23,000 from Turkey; 17,700 from Jordan; 9,000 from Malaysia and 3,300 from Morocco. The Gaza war brought the flow to a halt. But in the first two months of this year, at least 10,000 tourists from Muslim countries have already entered Israel.
The Palestinian and Arab discourse on the subject began in 2012, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Muslims to visit Jerusalem. Hamas is adamantly opposed to Muslims visiting the city, even if the tour is for religious purposes and would primarily help Palestinian businesses. Because the city is under Israeli control, Hamas believes that visiting it would amount to de facto recognition of Israel.
Hamas’ view is supported by the most important religious arbiter in the Muslim world today, Yusuf al-Qaradawi (chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars). But other clerics who support Abbas’ view say that the prophet Mohammed himself came to the city, on his night journey as depicted in the Koran, and that the city was not under Muslim control at that time.
In the meantime, just the fact that there is a debate appears to have created legitimacy for coming to Israel. Most of the Muslim tourists come from non-Arab states like Turkey, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. But there are also groups from Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and the Gulf states. Groups of Muslim pilgrims also arrive from European countries.
The average visit last four days and includes a full day devoted to visiting and praying at the Al Aqsa mosque. The trip also includes the Old City, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jericho and the nearby Nabi Musa site.
Most Muslim tourists enter Israel via the Allenby Bridge, but some arrive through Ben-Gurion International Airport. “Often, people tell me they don’t want to come from Tel Aviv [the airport] because that’s Israel. So we explain to them that all of the crossings are controlled by Israel,” says Atiya. He says the security inspection at Allenby can last up to eight or 10 hours, which is very difficult on tourists. “It’s part of the politics. They intentionally make it unpleasant so they won’t come back.”
Many of the Muslim visitors come to Jerusalem as part of a pilgrimage to the three holy cities of Islam: After their visit to Jerusalem, they travel through Jordan and on to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. The border inspectors will let Muslim visitors on a one-time visit enter the country without marking their passports with an Israeli stamp – so they can avoid problems later when entering Arab countries.
“It’s part of the rift between Fatah and Hamas,” explains Prof. Yitzhak Reiter of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] adopted the view that as many Muslims as possible should come to Jerusalem, so they’ll see the condition of the Palestinians and help them, and thereby help the PA. Hamas, which does not have any control in Jerusalem, and no interest to promote there, argues that coming to the city gives Israel legitimacy. The reality is that a lot of tourists are coming. Last week, I met a group from Indonesia at King David’s Tomb,” he says. “There’s tremendous curiosity. When the political conditions are calmer, there will be many more Muslim tourism here, because Al-Quds [the Arabic name for Jerusalem] and Al Aqsa have really taken off [as destinations]. It’s very intriguing.”