Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Palestinian tourism minister Rula Ma’ay’ahas talked about the challenges facing the country’s tourism sector.
Ma’ay’ahas met with the Saudi General Authority of Tourism and Antiquities Chairman, Prince Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdullah, in Jeddah to discuss bilateral relations and proposed Saudi investment in the Palestinian tourism sector.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is the reason behind your visit to Saudi Arabia? Is this your first visit to the Kingdom?
Rula Ma’ay’ahas: This is my first visit to Saudi Arabia as the Palestinian tourism minister. I am here to discuss joint cooperation between the Arab Tourism Organization and the state of Palestine to encourage investment in the Palestinian tourism sector. Tourism is one of the most important sources of national income and Palestinian tourist attractions should allow it to be able to compete with popular tourist destinations.
We also discussed ideas with the Islamic Development Bank [IDB], such as the establishment of a fund to combat poverty and to support investment in tourism. We also discussed the idea of establishing an academy to train tourism sector workers and raise the level of service in the Palestinian tourism sector, in addition to a program to restore and rehabilitate archeological sites in Palestine.
Q: How can you seek to promote tourism under Israeli occupation?
Of course, the Zionist occupation has an impact on tourist activity in Palestine, and this has created a state of fear among investors in terms of risking their funds. However, we have been able to cover risks relating to political turmoil and contracts being unfulfilled through joint cooperation with the Arab Tourism Organization and the IDB. Through this, we hope to encourage the flow of capital from Arab states into the Palestinian tourist sector, regardless of emergency circumstances. We are also trying, through participating in international conferences and visiting other Arab states, to promote Palestinian tourism and attract revenue and tourists to the country.
Q: Many tourists have complained about the often invasive searches and inspections they are subject to by Israeli forces when visiting the country. Is there any proposal on the horizon to deal with this?
The Israeli occupation is an impediment to Palestinian tourism in general. When a tourist comes to Palestine, the Israelis also seek to benefit from this as much as possible, often leaving the Palestinians with the remainders in terms of financial reward; there are many tourist facilities that benefit the Israeli side far more than the Palestinians. As for the searches, inspections and delays faced by foreign tourists, these are an annoyance, but they must remember that the Palestinians face far worse.
Q: Can you tell us about your dealings with the Israeli tourism ministry? Do you accept the methods they are using to develop the Israeli tourist industry?
As a minister, I do not communicate or deal with them at all, but we do have a body that specializes in dealing with this party. We do not accept what they are doing at all. We are always saying that when the Israeli tourism industry promotes tourism in Israeli areas, they are actually promoting Palestine as if it were Israel. Arab Muslim tourists should only visit Palestine, so that the Israelis do not benefit, just the Palestinians.
Q: How is Israeli settlement activity affecting Palestinian tourism?
It has a great impact on Palestinian tourism, particularly as the presence of settlements in Palestine affects investment. These settlements are taking over Palestinian land, and we call for greater Palestinian and Arab investment in order to protect our land from Israeli settlement-building.
Q: Do you receive foreign assistance to develop and promote the Palestinian tourist sector?
There is some assistance, but the major issue is that we do not see Arabs visiting Palestine. We know that all Arab states provide assistance to Palestine and exert effort in order to support the Palestinian cause, but there remains a significant shortage in terms of Arabs visiting Palestine. I hope to see all Arab states supporting the Palestinian tourism sector, whether through ministries or government bodies, to encourage their citizens to visit Palestine.
Q: What mechanisms have been put in place to return capital to Palestine?
There is a special law in Palestine to encourage investment, which is working to secure the return of capital to the country. However, the Zionist occupation is standing in the way of this law and the growth and development of Palestine’s economy and tourism sector. Strong investment will support and develop Palestine’s economy and tourism sector, which will significantly help the Palestinians remain steadfast and survive in their own land.
Q: How many tourists have visited Palestine this year? How many do you expect to have visited by the end of 2013?
Approximately 3.5 million tourists visited Palestinian soil between January and August of this year, an increase of 28 percent compared to the same period in 2011. However, the number of local visits has decreased by 10 percent. We expect the total number of tourists to have reached 4 million by the end of the year.
Q: Do you have a specific plan to ensure that tourists keep visiting Palestine?
We are in constant contact with foreign countries, whether through embassies or consulates, and we are keen to participate in international exhibitions [to promote Palestinian tourism]. However, the financial crisis facing Palestine is a large obstacle to our promotion and marketing of Palestinian tourism. We are doing what we can and we are hoping to receive financial support from all parties to allow us to participate in some of the larger international conferences opening Palestinian tourism to new markets.
Q: What is missing from the Palestinian tourism sector?
The Palestinian tourism sector needs further development; we cannot say that we want to increase the number of tourists visiting Palestine when there is no infrastructure in place to accommodate them. Therefore, it is essential that we develop and create infrastructure capable of accommodating large numbers of tourists, including increasing the number of hotels, restaurants and shops selling traditional Palestinian handicrafts.
Q: How do you address the issue of antiquities smuggling?
The problem is that Palestinian territory is divided into three administrative divisions: Area A, Area B, and Area C. Area C remains under Israeli control, and these areas see a lot of illegal excavations and theft of Palestinian antiquities, which are then smuggled out by the Israelis. We seek to counter this through the media, informing the world that what Israel is doing is contrary to international law, and that Israel is an occupying power that must not be allowed to steal Palestinian artifacts. However, Israel is indifferent to all this, as usual.
Q: Can you tell us about the excavations under Al-Aqsa Mosque?
There is ongoing work to excavate under Al-Aqsa Mosque and the surrounding area and this represents a huge threat to the mosque. These excavations are increasing on a daily basis and unfortunately we have not been able to find out what is happening there; however, the cracks that have appeared in the mosque prove that the drilling and excavation have reached a phase that poses a threat to the mosque’s endurance.
The damage is not limited to Al-Aqsa and the surrounding area. It has also affected buildings in the surrounding district and unfortunately the Israelis have prevented us from inspecting the excavations, so it is difficult to accurately determining what is happening there.