Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 3 July 2020

CORONAVIRUS

'You lose everything': coronavirus brings tourism in Palestine to stuttering halt

Only 600 visitors travelled to the region in April, leaving businesses struggling to survive

A priest walks past the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The Palestinian government announced a month-long state of emergency late on March 5, 2020 after the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed.  AFP
A priest walks past the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The Palestinian government announced a month-long state of emergency late on March 5, 2020 after the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed.  AFP

The coronavirus has devastated the tourism industry in Palestine and Israel, where guides and hoteliers are facing major upheaval as visitors are kept away from some of the Middle East’s top sites.

Even the bravest and most stalwart of business owners have been forced to shut up shop.

“We never closed before, even during the First Intifada, the first Gulf War,” said Raed Saadeh, whose family has run the Jerusalem Hotel since 1960.

"Everyone closed and we continued to open."

The hotel’s leafy terrace in occupied East Jerusalem is now empty of guests recuperating from a foray into the Old City, where tourists have been replaced by pigeons cooing above closed souvenir shops.

The damage wrought by coronavirus restrictions to tourism in Palestine and Israel, which controls the borders, has been heavy.

Only 600 visitors arrived last month, compared to 428,100 in April 2019, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics said.

With a tourism ban imposed in March, the bureau said the few registered visitors probably had special permission to enter and could include those on student or religious visas.

With all bookings scrapped, Mr Saadeh, 58, said the hotel’s food supplies were given away, and staff relied on Israel's national insurance scheme for partial salary payments.

As a business owner, he said he received less than $2,000 (Dh7,346) in assistance, despite having tens of thousands of dollars to pay in loans, rent and other costs.

Until the pandemic hit, the Jerusalem Hotel’s management had been paying off debts and making improvements to the building, funded in part by advance payments on reservations.

“They’re asking for their money back, we have used the money,” said Mr Saadeh.

He is hoping for an Israeli grant from a 100 billion shekel (Dh104.11bn/$28.34bn) aid package for businesses hit hard by the pandemic.

Local authorities moved swiftly to tackle the coronavirus and there have been relatively few deaths, with only five recorded in Palestine and more than 280 in Israel.

An outbreak linked to a hotel in Bethlehem prompted the Palestinian Authority to declare a state of emergency in March and that remains in place.

Checkpoints were closed and Israel arranged the quick departure of busloads of tourists whose holidays had come to an abrupt halt.

The shutdown came just before Easter and hit hard in Bethlehem, where people from olive oil producers to dry cleaners rely on the tourism trade.

“Our problem with the tourism industry here is very few people have full-time employment,” said Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan, who runs Bethlehem’s Hosh Al Syrian guesthouse and Fawda Cafe.

Before the shutdown, the 12-room guesthouse was expected to be full throughout spring and bookings were looking promising for the gourmet restaurant.

Fadi Kattan owns and operates the Hosh Al Syrian guesthouse in Bethlehem. Courtesy Fadi Kattan. 
Fadi Kattan owns and operates the Hosh Al Syrian guesthouse in Bethlehem. Courtesy Fadi Kattan. 

Mr Kattan has not been charged rent by the municipality and is able to pay partial salaries to staff until September, but most people working in tourism are paid only when they work.

They include Noor Mahmoud, a tour guide who has had to leave Bethlehem and return to her family home in Jenin, in the northern West Bank, after losing her income.

“Usually I get a lot of requests in March and April because it’s high season, and of course all my requests were cancelled,” said Ms Mahmoud, 28, who has so far been unable to apply for financial support.

“You lose everything.”

While some guides have started offering online tours to earn money during the closure, she doubts her clients would be interested.

“They are just locked down and trying to manage their lives,” Ms Mahmoud said.

Most are over 50, she said, “so they’re not very well-acquainted with technology.”

Mr Kattan launched the Sabah Al Yasmine podcast with recipes and conversations for guests.

“It's to stay in people’s minds, because the day we go back to business they remember we exist,” he said.

The strategy has also been adopted by Green Olive Tours, whose team of Palestinians and Israelis was producing an online film series based on their political and cultural tours.

“It's to encourage them to come as soon as they have the chance,” said Mohammad Barakat, a senior partner at the company, who is based in Jerusalem.

Tourists walk past an Israeli border police officer in Jerusalem's Old City in 2017. Reuters
Tourists walk past an Israeli border police officer in Jerusalem's Old City in 2017. Reuters

Although Israel is easing its coronavirus measures and aims for everything to be open in mid-June, it is unclear when tourists will be allowed entry.

Israel is in talks with Cyprus and Greece to allow visitors to travel freely between the three countries, although no agreement has yet been reached.

Greece has said it will reopen to tourism on July 1, said Dimitra Mazaraki, an official at the Greek embassy to Israel.

The industry consensus is that tourists will trickle back in December, and 2021 numbers will be well below those before the pandemic.

Mr Saadeh expected an uncertain future after 30 years of working at the Jerusalem Hotel, with huge competition for customers and no long-term Israeli government plan to support the industry.

“You never know, for example, if things will backfire at one point,” with a surge in coronavirus cases, he said.

New rules are expected to be introduced to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, such as more stringent cleaning regimes, the cost of which tourism businesses will have to absorb or pass on to their clients.

Mr Kattan doubted pilgrims on medium-range packages would pay the difference.

“I don’t think they’ll take a 50 per cent rise on their airlines and hotel prices,” he said.

He warned against trying to rush back to mass tourism, urging the industry to take a new approach while considering the health of staff and visitors.

The Palestinian Authority, in Bethlehem and other parts of the occupied West Bank, does not have the same financial resources as Israel to prop up tourism.

But Ms Mahmoud said small steps could be taken, such as reducing taxes and fees for renewing guide licences, and preventing overcrowding to make tourists feel safe when they return.

“If they are not taking health precautions they will not feel protected,” she said.

Better management of tours could also ensure visitors widen their horizons beyond the top sites, Ms Mahmoud said.

That would make a greater financial contribution to the broader society.

“Then maybe we can help each other to get out of this crisis,” she said.

Updated: May 26, 2020 09:16 PM

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