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27 Sep, 2011

World Tourism Day Essay: Visit Palestine, Support Peace

The outpouring of global support for an independent Palestinian state has opened a huge window of opportunity for the global travel & tourism industry to join the effort and help end one of the world’s longest and most controversial conflicts. One way would be to make every effort to visit Palestine and end the offensive, humiliating and illegal requirement of having to first apply for a visa at an Israeli embassy.

The Israeli occupation of Palestine means that millions of people in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, especially Christian pilgrims seeking to visit Bethlehem, and Muslims seeking to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, have to seek a visa from a country they DO NOT WANT to visit in order to get to a country they DO WANT to visit.

By any norms of international relations, this should be totally unacceptable. Now, thanks to the wave of global support for an independent Palestine, the peoples of all countries backing the Palestinian bid are well placed to demand that their governments take the necessary diplomatic steps to remove this bizarre requirement. Once eliminated, the number of visitors to Palestine will break all records.

As an affiliate body of the United Nations, the World Tourism Organisation has a moral and professional responsibility to advance the cause. Today, World Tourism Day, coming right in the midst of an intense global debate on Palestine, is an excellent day to start.

There has been much excitement, and much talk, about the opportunities presented by the Arab spring. No doubt, Tunisia and Egypt are setting the standards, and will reap an immense tourism dividend. But their story is incomplete without taking account of the even more immense opportunities for liberating the people of Palestine. If Arab dictators and despots are to fall for the Arab spring to bear fruit, the Israeli occupation of Palestine must also end.

As clearly manifested in the numerous speeches by global leaders at the ongoing 66th UN General Assembly, global backing for Palestine is almost universal. The vast majority of the world considers the Israeli occupation to be illegal. Travel and tourism can play a vital role in providing the economic support for a viable Palestinian state, after the occupation ends.

This is a win-win situation of the first order. As Palestine has no natural resources or manufacturing or industrial base, tourism will mean an almost instantaneous source of valuable foreign exchange revenues. Many of those visitors will visit Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Israel, and vice versa. The entire region will benefit.  Today, the taxpayers of the European Union, the United States and other countries provide the occupied Palestine territories with millions of dollars in aid.  That will probably be no longer necessary. Moreover, trillions of dollars being wasted on defence and security expenditures could be re-channelled into something more productive, such as meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals by the deadline of 2015.

An independent state will help the Palestinian people get on with nation-building. The travel and tourism industry is already cognizant of the benefits. In the hopeful days of the past, when the various peace accords such as Camp David and Oslo were being negotiated, the joint presence of the Israeli, Egyptian, Palestinian, and Jordanian tourism ministers was a welcome sight at packed press conferences at international trade shows.

On this World Tourism Day, the UNWTO could commission a full-scale study of the tourism potential of an independent Palestine. It could call for more international tourism conferences to be held in Palestine. When those who apply for visas to get to those conferences experience the hassles at the Israeli embassies, airports and checkpoints, they themselves will push for a new visa system that will allow visitors to travel to and through Palestine without coming into any contact with the Israelis.

At the moment most visitors to Palestine are from countries which do not need visas for Israel.  This is nothing compared to the millions of other potential visitors from India, the ASEAN countries, in Africa and Latin America. A small minority in these countries, mainly Christian and Muslim pilgrims, still give it a try. When applying for a visa, however, they have to first prove that they are not a threat to Israel before they can be allowed to prove their friendship for Palestine.

Today, every world leader addressing the UN General Assembly to support the creation of a Palestinian state is sending a clear message to Israel. President Barack Obama said in his speech that he was frustrated with the lack of progress in the Arab-Israeli “peace process.”  The rest of the world is even more frustrated, especially with the United States. There is growing anger at the empty words leading to no tangible action. Global leaders are making clear that of all the various problems they face, that of Palestine has consumed enough time, money and resources over the years, and that it’s time to end it.

The Israelis have long claimed to be the only democracy in the Middle East. No longer. Many other democracies are emerging, and all want the Palestinian people to be free. The Palestinians stress that they see the UN as the last hope of pursuing their goal via proper legal, diplomatic and peaceful channels. The US has said it will veto the bid. That will be a slap in the face of the fundamental majority-wins rule of democracy. If their bid fails, the Palestinians have warned there could be violence against what will be seen in many parts of the world as US hypocrisy and double standards. The Islamic world, too, is approaching zero-tolerance level for being blamed as the source of problems caused by others.

The Israelis also have long claimed that their foes seek to wipe them off the map. Today, it is the Israelis who have to prove that they are not trying to wipe Palestine off the map.  It is time for them to recognise Palestine rather than constantly demand that the Palestinians recognise them. If they are such great lovers of democracy as they claim, then it would behoove them to respect the views of the majority and create the conditions for a Palestinian state to evolve.

Israelis need not worry about the security when the floodgates of tourism open. The 8 m high wall they have built to keep the Palestinian terrorists out will suffice to ward off any security threats from foreign visitors. However, when the visitors go back to their home countries after photographing the massive wall and seeing the reality on the ground, they will realise who has been telling the truth. This global awakening is what Israelis fear most.

On World Tourism Day, Sept 27, the Egyptian city of Aswan will host the official celebrations, which will include a High-Level Think Tank on this year’s theme, ‘Tourism – Linking Cultures’. At the Think Tank, leading public and private tourism stakeholders, academia and the media will address the role of tourism in building understanding, respect and tolerance worldwide – referred to as “building blocks for a more peaceful world.” All very well. But the world’s done enough thinking. And talking. Its now time for some courageous action.