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27 May, 2015

Bangkok to Bethlehem: UNWTO Conference to Spotlight Biggest Block To Global Travel

An historic conference on Religious Tourism to be organised by the UN World Tourism Organisation between June 15-16 in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ (Peace be upon Him), may facilitate the removal of one of the greatest obstacles to global travel & tourism flows and advance a settlement of one of the world’s thorniest geopolitical conflicts.

Source: UNWTO conference brochure

Source: UNWTO conference brochure

It is the first time that the UNWTO is organising such a conference in cooperation with the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Both the venue, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, and the theme, “Fostering Sustainable Socio-Economic Development In Host Communities”, were chosen to underscore the linkage between religious tourism, one of the fastest growing market sectors, and its huge socio-economic and spiritual impact as a conduit for poverty alleviation, job creation and peace-building.

Palestinian President Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Mrs. Rula Ma’ayah and UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai are to officiate at the opening. Several dozen tourism ministers, officials and religious leaders from around the world are due to attend. From Asia, one of the moderators is former Indonesian Tourism Minister Mr. I. Gede Ardika.

Source: UNWTO conference brochure

Source: UNWTO conference brochure

The Palestinian hosts have organised a stellar social programme, arguably the most fascinating part of the entire trip. Delegates will be able to enjoy a traditional Palestinian breakfast, visit the Samaritans, one of the smallest communities in the world, experience Palestine’s oldest food factories in Nablus, and the Church of Nativity, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque. Other historic, natural and spiritual spots on the various tours include Bethlehem’s old wood carvers, the site of Moses (Nabi Musa, Peace be upon Him), and a visit to Hebron.

As the world’s only travel trade journalist to have attended all three previous conferences organised by the UNWTO on the theme of spiritual/religious tourism in Cordoba, Ninh Binh and Santiago de Compostella, I would have liked to attended this one, too. But I cannot, because Israel stands in the way. Hundreds of others would have also liked to attend, but face the same impediment.

Official information posted on the UNWTO website repeatedly and clearly stresses that the conference is taking place in the State of Palestine. However, in order to enter the State of Palestine, recognised as an independent state by 135 countries worldwide, a visa application must be lodged at the diplomatic missions of the State of Israel, an illegal occupier of the State of Palestine.

Even if the visa is approved, delegates cannot reach the State of Palestine directly. They have to go either via Israel or Jordan. At both border checkpoints, they have to pass the immigration and security authorities of the State of Israel.

This editor is an Indian-born, naturalised Thai citizen. The Royal Thai government recognises the State of Palestine. It DOES NOT recognise the Israeli occupation of the State of Palestine. The Thai government considers that as being illegal under international law. In spite of that, I will have to seek the permission of Israel, where I DO NOT want to go, in order to enter the State of Palestine, where I DO want to go.

This must be one of the most perplexing travesties in global travel & tourism today. Why, in order to visit the State of Palestine, do I have to prove that I am not a security threat to Israel?

In fact, the onus is on the Jewish state to prove that it is not a security threat to me.

At every step of the road from Bangkok to Bethlehem, I will no doubt be subjected to illegal questioning by Israeli security authorities who will do whatever they choose, including go through my belongings, download the data and files on my computer, probably fingerprint and photograph me.

Anyone attending the conference faces the same risk. If you are an activist supporter of the State of Palestine, as I am well-known to be, you are at even greater risk of becoming an unwilling and unwitting guest of the Israeli government. And if you are a Muslim, as I am, expect to get extra-special treatment.

Neither the UNWTO nor the Palestinians nor the government of Thailand or any other country can guarantee your safety in the hands of the Israelis.

Officially, all invitations to the conference are being extended in the name of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The registration documentation says, “The government of the State of Palestine will take the necessary measures to facilitate the arrival, stay and departure of participants invited by the Organisation. Throughout their stay, participants will benefit from the privileges and immunities provided for in the Agreement concluded between the Organization and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of the State of Palestine.

“The agreement is based on Article 32 of the Statutes of the World Tourism Organization, which reads as follows: “The Organization shall enjoy in the territories of its Member States the privileges and immunities required for the exercise of its functions. Such privileges and immunities may be defined by agreements concluded by the Organization”, as well as on Resolution 136(V) of the fifth General Assembly of UNWTO.

“The Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the specialized agencies of 1947 and its Annex XVIII adopted by the seventeenth General Assembly through resolution 545 (XVII) shall be applicable in respect of the Conference. Participants will enjoy the privileges and immunities granted to delegates at the conferences of specialized agencies of the United Nations, as provided for under Article V of the Convention.”

This language is a clear reference to the fact that delegates invited to or registered for international conferences organised under the auspices of the United Nations agencies are entitled to certain “privileges and immunities” when attending such events.

Unofficially, it has been made clear to me that while the State of Palestine can guarantee that invited delegates will be extended the privileges and immunities of travel through the Palestinian territories, it cannot guarantee that Israel will honour any of those agreements. That, I am told, is the sad reality.

As at least a few delegates will find this out the hard way, the conference will achieve some of its aims even before it convenes.

By highlighting this gross irregularity, it could well mark the start of a global movement to bar Israel from illegally obstructing what is potentially one of the greatest travel movements of the modern era.

Forcing visitors to get an illegal Israeli visa in order to legally tour Palestine has no precedence in international law. Other ways can and must be found to enable universal access to one of the world’s most magnificent destinations and the spiritual icons of the three great monotheistic religions, whose followers comprise nearly two-thirds of the global population.

If they did not have to be routed through Israeli diplomatic missions and checkpoints, millions of Christian and Muslim pilgrims would make a beeline for the State of Palestine. They would flourish the Palestinian economy, create thousands of local jobs, reduce Palestinian dependence on beggarly taxpayer-funded handouts from Western donors, and contribute to the emergence of a strong, independent Palestinian state.

They would be welcomed with open arms by both Christian and Muslim Palestinians. The benefits of peace would trickle down to the economies of the neighbouring countries, such as Jordan and Egypt. Rather than the current situation, where visitors spend most of their time in Israel and take perhaps a day- or overnight-trip to Palestine, the situation would be reversed.

Most of all, they would transmit through social media an accurate picture of what is REALLY going on in Palestine and the suffering of the Palestinian people under three generations of Israeli occupation.

They will take millions of photographs of the creative graffiti that decorates the Israeli apartheid wall, the eight-metre-high concrete monstrosity that has become the latest symbol of global conflict and division. They will speak to Palestinians and hear their stories about the lack of opportunities and hope for their young people, the rampaging of the Jewish fanatic settlers, their daily struggle to just commute to and from their workplaces.

They will hear what the Jewish state fears the most – The Truth.

Travel & tourism is the economic bedrock of the State of Palestine, which has little else of similar value. Exporting olives, dates and citrus fruits simply does not cut it.

As the lead UN agency in charge of promoting tourism, the UNWTO has taken an historic step by convening this conference in Bethlehem. If other UN agencies hold similar events, more international delegates will see for themselves how difficult it can be to attend them, and pressure will build for Israel to be removed from blocking the way.

Then the floodgates will open up, and the world will see exactly how tourism can be a force for peace, nation-building and sustainable socio-economic development.

More information about this historic conference can be found here: http://middle-east.unwto.org/event/registration-international-conference-religious-tourism-fostering-sustainable-socio-economic-d