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Delegates meet to discuss eco-tourism in first conference of its kind in Palestine

By PM collaborators - November 14, 2016
Section: [Main News]
Tags: [agriculture] [economy] [Tourism] [trade and diplomatic relations] [Occupation] [Hebron] [Jordan] [Jordan Valley] [ Beit Sahour]

On November 9, dozens of Palestinians and internationals gathered in Beit Sahour for a conference on the future of Palestinian eco-tourism – the first of its kind to be held on Palestinian soil. The attendees – from NGOs, and officials from international governments – met to discuss challenges and opportunities for the Palestinian tourism sector.
Many of the attendees highlighted the economic potential of eco-tourism. As Rula Maa’yaa, the Palestinian tourism minister noted, “tourism in Palestinian is already 15% of GDP, and we hope to increase this significantly over the next five years.”
The minister reminded the audience that Palestine was hugely important religiously -  “this is the home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Al-Aqsa Mosque” - but that the Palestinian tourist industry could expand from beyond attracting pilgrims, and create more jobs for Palestinians. This starting point, Maa’yaa claimed, could help Palestine “make the most of its potential and improve the lives of its people through tourism.”
Maa’yaa’s comments were echoed by other speakers. Richard Asbeck works for the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German organisation dedicated to promote sustainable development around the world.
Like Maa’yaa, Asbeck noted that “like no other industry, eco-tourism can help the Palestinian economy.” Unlike other industries, eco-tourism can be economically beneficial while also protecting the environment. Asbeck explained this is especially important given that Palestine is a signatory of the latest UN agreement on climate change, signed in 2015.
Asbeck also emphasised how eco-tourism could help individual Palestinians – not just the economy as a whole. For example, young women in the village of Beni Naim, near Hebron, have been making local handicrafts, like soap, for visiting tourists and received support for it. Support from organisations like the American consulate in Jerusalem have helped them sell their products for better prices.  The black dresses worn by some of the attendees, adorned with elegant embroidered patterns, are vivid testament to the vibrancy of local handicrafts.
Homestays with Palestinian families are also becoming more popular because they allow visitors to experience life in a traditional Palestinian home. The Rozana Association, a group dedicated to promoting sustainable rural development in Palestine, has established twelve homestays throughout the West Bank, employing over 25 women. Rozana also runs PalStays, a website for Palestinian hosts and their foreign guests to meet and arrange visits.
But if Palestinian eco-tourism has huge economic potential, speakers also discussed some serious challenges. For one thing, preserving the environment would be far easier through regional cooperation. Indeed many problems, like the widespread pollution afflicting the River Jordan, transcend borders. As Asbeck insisted: “we need to go beyond borders to protect the environment. Because the environment is so fragile, regional cooperation is needed if eco-tourism is to be sustainable.”
Osama Hassan, a representative from the Jordanian government, gave an interesting example of this. He highlighted how his government has set aside land for several endangered species of bird in Jordan. “Palestinians need to also set aside land to protect these animals,” he said. After all, not even Israeli landmines can stop herons flying from Jordan to the West Bank.
Action of this kind is difficult because there is a lack of awareness among Palestinians about their natural heritage as the minister herself conceded: “The Palestinian people do not know about their environment.” “Part of this conference is to inform the Palestinian people about their environment, and their country,” she added.
To this end, attendees several projects aimed at raising awareness about Palestinian natural beauty. Mahmoud Eid, an official in the education ministry, discussed how his team took Jericho school children to nearby nature reserves and “encouraged them to take photos of this beautiful nature,” as well as participate in activities like olive-picking.
Elsewhere, vocational courses about protecting the environment – encompassing 500 hours of training per trainee  – have also been established. A website also been set up to inform young Palestinians about the natural heritage of their country.
Efforts like this can also take on a political slant. For instance, Eid discussed a scheme to teach young Palestinians about the environmental impact of illegal Jewish settlements. As Palestine Monitor reported recently, settlers habitually dump their rubbish near Palestinian houses, creating major health and environmental problems.
This sort of thing is important, Maa’yaa explains, because “Protecting our environment and encouraging eco-tourism is not just good for the economy. It is also a form of resistance. ”
“A people without its nature are dead,” she ended.


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