On the occasion of World Tourism Day, which every year falls on September 27, the Palestine Central Office of Statistics and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities made known some data on the evolution of tourist flows of the first semester this year in the West Bank. There is reason for satisfaction when present figures are compared with those of the two previous years, and it couldn’t be otherwise, taking into account that, during that time, international tourism suffered closures and lockdowns imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tourism in the West Bank: 2023 Looks Good
This said, the number of tourists that spent the night in the Tourism Center of the West Bank (Palestinian Territories), rose to 380,000 between January and June, for a total of one million hotel nights. We are talking about double the figures recorded in the first semester of 2022. It’s not difficult to guess that the locality most frequented was Bethlehem (58% of the total of hotel nights), which indicates also that these tourists are in the majority pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.
The arrivals from EU countries accounted for 40% of the total; 36% of the tourists came from other parts of the world; 14% were Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, while the overnight stays of travellers residing in the Territories was 1 out of every 10.
Many visitors do not stay overnight. Again, think of Bethlehem, which being a short distance from Jerusalem, can be explored in a day, without staying overnight. In the first semester of 2023, visits of only a few hours to localities in the West Bank rose to 1.9 million: 866 were arrivals from abroad, whereas 1.56 million corresponded to Palestinians with Israeli passports. The latter were concentrated primarily in Jericho and the Jordan Valley (23%), and then in the areas of Jenin (19%), Tulkarm and Nablus.
During the first semester of 2023, tourist sites in the West Bank recorded an increase in the number of internal visitors, with 2 million entries in places of interest, gardens and parks. Compared with the same period in 2022, the number of internal visits increased by 15.5%.
Despite these figures, however, there was a decline in the number of employees in tourist activities. They were 8% fewer than in the first semester of 2022. In the second semester of this year, we are talking about 503,000 people, that is, 4.3% of workers employed in Palestine.
Comparison with Arrivals in Israel
The positive tendency verified by the Palestinian data is reflected in those furnished by the Central Office of Israeli Statistics. And it can only be so, taking into account that the visitors have to pass through the Israeli border crossings to enter the Palestinian Territories.
The most up-to-date statistics cover the first eight months of 2023: arrivals of tourists rose to 2.5 million. In regard to the countries of origin, the United States heads the list (718,000 people) followed by France (195,000) and then the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia.
News of Saudi Arabia and the United States
But in this year’s World Day of Tourism, Israel has two other reasons to be satisfied. In the first place, the first visit that took place of an official delegation of the Israeli Government to Saudi Arabia, which included the participation of Haim Katz, the Minister of Tourism, in an international event organized in the capital, Riyadh, by the World Tourism Organization, and, in the second place, the arrival of the much awaited United States green light for the admission of Israel (the 41stcountry to be incorporated) to the Visa Waiver Program.
Beginning this coming November, Israeli citizens will be able to travel to the United States for tourism, business — or in transit — obtaining an entrance visa with a simplified procedure directly upon arrival at the airport, without having to request it first from the United States Embassy. As is already the case with citizens of the European Union, Israelis will only have to fill online — a few days before departure — the ESTA [Electronic System for Travel Authorization] form, introduced by the U.S. Government for security reasons, after the September 11 attacks in New York and the Pentagon.
The Visa Waiver Program and American Palestinians
The Visa Waiver Program obliges countries that comply with the requirements, among them Israel, to facilitate the passing of border crossings to holders of U.S. passports. When it comes to Palestinian emigrants with dual nationality who are going to the Occupied Territories, the question gets complicated because Israel makes its security reasons prevail. This has been the focus of the doubts and protests of those that make manifest the unequal treatment and difficulties that various U.S. Palestinians continue denouncing, in transit through Israeli crossings. For this reason, several humanitarian organizations and a group of 15 American Democrat Senators requested the Washington government in recent weeks to deny (or postpone even more) Israel’s admission in the Visa Waiver Program.
The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories or COGAT, an articulation of the Israeli Armed Forces that control militarily the West Bank, created an online registration procedure and an application (called Al-Munassiq) reserved to U.S. travellers of Palestinian origin, whose details will be examined to determine beforehand if they are permitted or denied access to Israeli Territory.