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Economic Future of Palestine Depends on Tourism

By: Hani Abu Dayyeh
Chair of Bethlehem University's Tourism Institute

Following is his speech at the IIPT World Symposium – South Africa 



It is becoming very clear for us in Palestine and for many observers interested in the challenges facing our country, that the economic future of Palestine depends on services led by the tourist sector. What we have in Palestine is a very special form of tourism that has a proven its sustainability for millennia. To cite a good example, a number of Canaanites fertility worship sites have been transformed over the years into what is now called El-Khader (St. George) – literally, the Green, who is venerated by the three Abrahamic religions and visited by people on El-Khader day, or any other time a person may seek the intercession of El Khader for healing or blessing someone. We should not also forget the beginning of the Monotheistic pilgrimage, which was established some four thousand years ago. Over the years, Palestine has become a unique and unparalleled destination for people of the three Abrahamic faiths.

The wealth of tourism in Palestine does not only stem from our faith-based tourism, but also from our rich cultural heritage. This heritage possesses the potential to attract even more tourists to Palestine. The place we call home is a natural bridge that connects three continents.  It is a land traversed by all. Armies of the surrounding empires and merchants traveled through Palestine as they invaded or traded with the empires within the three continents. Our country lies between two main historical north-south highways. One of which is the renowned King’s Highway. It lies between modern-day Jordan and Damascus. The other road is known as the Via Maris - Way by the Sea, which starts in Egypt, goes through Gaza and continues to Damascus. Running east-west, the Spice Route connects the King’s Highway to the Via Maris at Gaza. These transcontinental highways led most of the armies and traders. How the Spice Route received its name is rather self-explanatory. The caravans laden with spices brought from the Asian subcontinent were delivered through our lands to ancient Egypt and to the rest of the Roman Empire.

We did not just provide the land bridge by which these products were throughout the ancient world but merchants also took with them salt from the Dead Sea. The art of pasta was carried through our trade routes by Arab traders traveling from China. Pasta was carried to Italy by the same Arab traders. Italy therein became known for its culinary richness based heavily on pasta products. This would not have been possible without us, the Palestinians. We also incorporated these pasta products in the Palestinian kitchen. This flow of cultural ingredients led to a very rich Palestinian kitchen. Regarding cultural diversity in the Mediterranean, renowned historian Fernand Braudel notes: “what characterizes the history of cultural contact along this sea is the metaphor of recouvrement, the superimposition or the imbrications of cultures within each other. There is no such thing as a pure, genuine, unspoiled culture in the Mediterranean. Each culture has lived within its neighbours, each has expressed values, preferences, traditions which are not only its own, but are also those of cultures which, at an official level, has been considered antagonistic even inimical."

Few regions in the world can match the depth of historical experience, the diversity of religious and ethnic situations, and the complexity of social interaction we have in Palestine. It is also clear, with all their so-called security concerns which encumber the movement of people between the various Palestinian territories that the Israeli occupation will continue to maintain control over the Palestinian cities and villages for the near future. These Palestinian cities and villages offer tourist sites that are powerful magnets for pilgrims and tourists of the three Abrahamic religions. So the challenge for us as Palestinians is: how can we develop our tourist sector to its full potential under duress?

There is now a lot of effort by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, in cooperation with the Professional Tourist Association, to meet these very difficult challenges with the help of various donor countries. Donor countries are cognizant of the fact that we have to develop this important and promising economic sector to provide the necessary income and employment opportunities for the growing ranks of our unemployed young people.

Bethlehem University, which was the first to establish an Educational Tourism and a Hospitality Training Institute in 1973, plans to address these formidable challenges. Additionally, Bethlehem University aims to address the issues of inadequate capacity building to be able to supply the industry with well-educated and highly trained potential employees. In order to successfully do this, BU, with its limited campus physical facilities recognized immediately the need for expansion. Thus, Bethlehem University purchased a nearby property, now known as the Mt. David campus. It includes three cultural buildings with significant history and unique Bethlehem architecture.

When discussing our Grand Vision for capacity building, training and skill upgrading in the field of tourism, it is should be noted that Bethlehem University decided to dedicate most of the new campus to its smallest department which is The Institute of Hotel Management and Tourism. It essentially allotted the smallest department on its campus the biggest expansion program in terms of both the physical space and future academic endeavors with regards to academic personnel and staffing. Bethlehem University intends to transform itself into the premier institution in the field of Tourism Education and Hospitality Training. This goal required and still requires further major financial investments.

It is foreseen that the main building on the Mt. David campus will be transformed into a top 90-room model teaching and training hotel. Furthermore, one of the heritage buildings will be transformed into an iconic, four star training restaurant and a small conference center. The other heritage building will be transformed into a teaching cultural center which will also house the traditional Palestinian Musical groups at the University.

As stated earlier, the freedom of movement is made extremely difficult by the Israeli Military authority and its regime of multiple military check posts spread all over the Palestinian territories.  The Israeli military tends to heavily target the young segment of the Palestinian population. So it is foreseen that as a hub, Bethlehem University has to establish a training program which constitutes satellite campuses in tourist areas. These areas include Nablus in the north, Ramallah in the center, and Gaza in the south. Furthermore, these centers must be equipped with the appropriate technology to allow distance learning. We are now in the process of doing a “needs assessment. “This assessment will address the specific needs of the aforementioned tourist centers. Ramallah, for instance, has a greater FIT client base made of government employees, foreign government representatives, a large NGO expatriate population and foreign consultants, which would necessitate different approaches to training than in the Bethlehem area which is more established in Faith Based all-inclusive group tourism. Gaza, with the projected major investment by donors to rebuild the Gaza strip after the awful destruction brought about in the last August war with Israel,  will also need targeted training programs to meet the needs of foreign dignitaries, professional consultants, and media representatives.

Bethlehem University has already developed the required curriculum, which is regionally and internationally recognized. Newly developed training modules have been successfully implemented and are recognized by the Palestinian Ministry of Labor and The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism. With this recognition, we are now ready to undertake the task of recruiting qualified personnel and staff.  In our projected training and upgrading skills programs, we envision a dual approach:

1. Educational and Vocational training at our iconic Teaching Hotel, Restaurant and Cultural Center on our Mt. David campus.

2. In cooperation with the Bethlehem University Institute of Community Partnership and the Arab Hotel Association, we hope to develop alliances with neighboring hotels and restaurants. This relationship will enable employees in different hotels and restaurant to acquire course credits at BU. If an employee desires to further his education all the credits earned will be recognized at BU and other regional and international training programs.

The most important and unique point is the manner in which BU is organizing itself to meet these challenges. We are a developing country and any development plan must function like a table with 4 legs for it to succeed, each leg must support the table.

The first leg is the Public Sector. Tourist policy acts as a set of guidelines to determine which specific objectives and actions should be pursued to meet the needs of the particular destination area under consideration. Policies regulate the actions not just of the government, but also those in the private and non-profit sectors. A criticism of many official tourist policies is that they acknowledge the importance of human resource concerns but are limited in their detailed development of the implications of these issues. Failure to address this area in a sensitive and coordinated manner threatens the effective growth and development of tourism worldwide. Within this complex environment, responsibilities and structures have evolved through history, tradition and bureaucratic convenience rather than in response to the needs of the tourism industry and its employees. When human resource issues are not included in planning and policy making, fundamental changes in public policy and management thinking regarding human resources will be difficult for host countries to implement. We at BU are in symbiotic relationship, with our Palestinian Ministries of Tourism, Labor, Education and Higher Education. We are working closely with them to help develop tourism policies and standards that meet the realities on the ground. Our role includes advising the government in all aspects of human resource development for the tourist industry.

Second, is the Private Sector. The tourism field will always be led by the private sector. Consequently, our training approach has been developed after intense consultation with the Palestinian Private sector. They will determine the needed training programs. There appears to be a considerable gap between what providers offer as management level tourist education, and the needs as expressed by the tourist industry in Palestine. Some consider tourist education outside of Palestine to be too broad and generic. Furthermore, students often have no experience upon graduating which hinders them from receiving jobs in the private sector of hotel management. The solution for us at Bethlehem University is to continue forging a partnership between industry and education. This will make graduates more likely to receive jobs in the industry. Educators and hospitality managers are essential to increasing the rate of graduate recruitment and job retention. For a harmonious partnership, students must be recruited and inculcated with the desire and knowledge to further working conditions in the industry. As a person in the Tourist private sector, I have been approached by Bethlehem University to preside over the interim board of the institution’s Hotel Management and Tourism program. On the board we also have three key people independently representing an International Hotel Management company, the Palestinian hotels sector and the tour operators sector. These individuals will provide the proper guidance to ensure Bethlehem University remains intimately connected to the private sector.

The third leg is the Academic Universities and Vocational Training centers. For us to succeed we need to educate, train, and undertake serious academic research. This will help the public and private sectors meet their developmental goals. To this end, we at BU have established a Research Center to help hone the research skills of faculty and students for the benefit of our Tourism Development. This will enable us to accomplish these important interventions;

• Identification of manpower, training needs, and development of national training structures and programs.

• Recruitment, training and formal education of high school graduates preparing for careers in the industry.

• Provision of on-the-job and specialist training services to existing industry personnel and proprietors (and co-ordinates their certification).

• Provision of advisory and business development services to the industry.

• To find ways for reaching out and training for unemployed people to enhance their prospects of finding jobs in the hotel, catering and tourism industry.

The fourth leg is the Civil Society. An active, civil society is extremely important in taking care of the “common good”. Anytime the Public sector and the Private sector come together in the world without an active civil society there emerge a corruption. It seems to me that in the Middle East people seek political power to gain capital. In the West, the private sector tries to buy its way to political power. What is it important in our case is that we have to protect and make sure that our development in tourism takes into consideration the “common good” at all times. As I mentioned before our tourism product is unique. It is heavily dependent upon faith based tourism. In my writings, I have persistently warned against uncontrolled development in tourism. Furthermore, I staunchly abhor developing tourism which has no respect for our rich cultural and religious traditions. So what Civil Society can help us maintain the quality of our tourist product as well as its religious and spiritual content, especially in the way we serve pilgrims? We are uniquely different than other parts of the world. We, Palestine, are home to historical sites and religious populations that can serve as guardians and help develop the spirit of tourism that has been with us for thousands of years. Within the institutional frameworks of Palestine’s religions, there are also services for pilgrims. These services include guiding pilgrimage tours to these important religious sites. They also have Religious Guest houses.  Here they act not only as religious guardians but also as a very important private sector that we cannot afford to ignore. We have the Franciscans on the interim board. They are in control of some of the most important sites in the Holy Land and also hospitality institutions such as the Casanova Guest Houses. In addition to the Franciscans, the Legionnaires and the German Friends of the Holy Land also serve on the interim board. These institutions are responsible for Notre Dame, Magdala, the Paulus Guest House, and the Tabgha Guest House located along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. This interim Board can also act as a unique and a very important platform for the religious institutions to meet with the other private sector players to share their mutual concerns.

Palestine is part of the international economy. Our tourist agencies serve clients from all over the world, such as Europe, the Americas and Eastern Asia. All our visiting brothers and sisters carry with them rich and developed experience in tourism education and hospitality. We want to reach out and incorporate these rich experiences into our training regime. To accomplish this, we have established a strategic partnership with St. Benilde Institute, which is the largest hospitality institute in the Philippines. Through our partnership, we are learning how to embed tourist training in our local cultural setting. Their students are doing internships and are employed by elite International Hotels. To learn from the Western world, we have an established relationship with Johnson and Wales University. Johnson and Wales University has four campuses across the United States experienced in the field of hospitality education and training.

In conclusion, our role as a Board of Tourism is to help bridge the gap between the concerned Public Sector and Civil Societies. It is necessary for the Hospitality Educational System and the Hospitality Industry to form an interdependent relationship in order to provide qualified and driven graduates. We must be cognizant of the fact that educational systems of tourism must be monitored continuously. This enables us to stay up to date, motivate and enable young people to cope with tomorrow’s challenges of the tourism industry. In our opinion this approach provides grounds for a constant dialogue between the concerned public sectors of tourism, educational systems and concerned Civil Societies. It will provide a deeper understanding on how to implement effective pedagogy.

This will enable the tourism industry to be more competitive, effective and innovative.

As we move forward and learn from our experiences and the experiences of our friends, we will become a lighthouse example in tourist development education in the hospitality services -especially in parts of the world that are forced to develop their tourism in a difficult environment.

Thank you,  “Wal Salaam Alaikum wa Raghamat Allah wa Barakatuhu”



Hani Abu Dayyeh

IIPT World Symposium – South Africa

16th -19th   February 2015

Bethlehem University Foundation
Phone: +1-240-241-4381
Fax: +1-240-553-7691
Beltsville, MD USA
Bethlehem University in the Holy Land
Phone: +972-2-274-1241
Fax: +972-2-274-4440
Bethlehem, Palestine