Seeing Another Side of Gaza: Tourism in a Conflict Zone

12/17/2012 01:51 pm ET | Updated Feb 16, 2013

"Gaza has a Google problem," was the oversimplified explanation Mohammed Alafranji, new media company SADAF president and Gaza City tourism promoter, told me when I met with him earlier this year in a highrise office overlooking the darkened, electricity starved Mediterranean seaport. He was showing me his new creation, an English language tourism map of Gaza City and a website, www.gazatoday.com.

Of course, as the recent conflict between Hamas and Israel shows, the reason tourists aren't flocking to Gaza, despite its Mediterranean beach and tourism infrastructure isn't as simple as what turns up on an internet search.

Unlike most journalists, I wasn't in Gaza for conflict, but looking at what could be if things were different, allowing tourism could be an economic force again. It was something I had done throughout various countries in my work as a freelance travel writer, including within Iraq and Afghanistan. Here in Gaza, my attention was largely focused on the ancient archeological ruins of the late Roman Saint Hilarion Monastery, among the largest Byzantine monastery ruins in the Middle East. It was placed onto the World Monuments Fund's most endangered list as a result of the blockade which limits restoration material and visits by experts from the outside world, as well as how past bombings might have shaken the ruins during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009. My goal was to examine how these ruins and other projects run by Dr. Ahmed Muhaisen, head of the Department of Architecture at the Islamic University of Gaza could re-launch a tourism related economy here, a place Israelis and others used to visit for its coastline. At the University, Dr. Muhaisen showed me students' architectural models of beach resorts with luxury bungalows built over the Mediterranean. "We have the beach, but we don't have a way for the tourists to come." Still, he told me, "we dream at least. We can't implement these projects but at least we support the creativity for the students."

Alafranji, Muhaisen and other stakeholders in Gaza's future were not the only ones welcoming me in Gaza City. The whole city seemed happy to meet a foreigner looking at more than war and conflict.

In fact, my biggest surprise was that the welcomes came in Hebrew, respectful nods and the word "Shalom" each time I entered a new building, making me do a double take. I wasn't just being welcomed as a foreigner, but one most assumed was Israeli. When I tried to chat with fisherman near my waterfront hotel, the Al Mathaf, and it was obvious I spoke very little Arabic, and they no English, they attempted conversation Hebrew, with which I am about as equally unskilled.

At the Monastery ruins, the former metropolitan, crossroads of the world aspect of Gaza was evident from the various cultural influences and even the construction materials, columns from Greece and Egypt's Luxor strewn about. It didn't take a flotilla of anti-blockade peace activists or a Hamas tunnel on the Egyptian border to bring them in either. They came openly by sea and land. Gaza might have even been part of the Holy Family's return route from Egypt after fleeing King Herod's first born son death edict, so important was ancient Gaza City along biblical land and sea roots.

As I often have found when visiting areas of conflict where neighbors can't see neighbors, there is a curiosity and wonder of what is beyond a border. At the massive Erez military checkpoint crossing, when I asked one of the workers what I could expect, she responded, "I don't know. I have never been there," in spite of Gaza being only a few meters from where she stood every day, stamping passports like mine. "Please tell me what it is like when you come back," she said with a wink. Hotel workers in Ashkelon, where I stayed overnight before the crossing were a mix of curious and wary, knowing Gaza missiles had rained near them before. Still, I would find once I crossed the border that Gazans know more about Israelis than the reverse, a paradox I find even among my left wing friends in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, who seem to know little about what is just a few miles away, conveniently blocked from thought by virtue of enormous concrete walls.

Within Gaza, is there intense poverty, bombed out buildings, a humbled people living in refugee camps dating from 1948? Yes there is all of that, but most of my too brief visit was to see the good things within Gaza, from newly renovated Ottoman mansions in Gaza's historic center, to hotels like the Al Mathaf with its own archeological museum, to cafes where locals gathered in outdoor gardens to smoke shisha pipes, generator powered lights in the trees above them, to the beaches featured in the movie God Went Surfing with the Devil.

Still reeling from the Arab Spring, the entire Middle East region is a fragile one and most travel editors, even when they know you specialize in conflict travel and the redevelopment of tourism infrastructure in war zones, don't always want to publish what you find. That and a variety of issues wound up being the case with my own visit to Gaza. Is it too much politics for what should be a vacation for some? Perhaps. Though I find it's more that with constant worry war could happen at any moment, the whole region becomes a suspect no-recommend zone, no matter what side of the fence one sits on. I have had equally bad luck in terms of cancelled or shaky assignments writing on Israel as I have had with Palestine, editors not wanting to be blamed for someone trapped in a conflict. Better to focus the Caribbean, or a cruise boat, though they have their own dangers.

From a purely economic standpoint, tourism is good for the region. Israel has long had ups and downs in tourism numbers, only recently barely pushing to the 3 million mark, a number paling in comparison to most of its neighbors, including Jordan which for years was viewed as a sidetrip from Israel. Peace treaties with Israel between Egypt and Jordan have benefited tourism tremendously in the region. Yet even within Israel and the Palestinian territories, past peaceful epochs proved enormously economically productive. The Oslo Accords sparked a tourism development renaissance within the West Bank, with luxurious hotels sprouting up for Israeli tourists, like the $300 million dollar Inter-Continental in Jericho, complete with a casino now shuttered since the Second Intifada of 2000 kept Israelis away. The hotel makes do with hearty, but budget conscious Christian pilgrims.

And Gaza has much harder to work now after the current conflict with its Tourism Ministry offices having been bombed into rubble. Ahmed Amer, a Ministry translator who helped conduct my meeting with Dr. Mohamed Ismael Khela, Assistant Undersecretary of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, confirmed that everyone who worked in the Ministry survived the bombing. "We hope we see you in Gaza soon, to see the destruction" Amer said to me. Destruction itself can drive tourism. Lebanon, fast gaining on Israeli's tourism numbers for vacationers seeking a Mediterranean vacation with an aura of danger, mixes Beirut's civil war bombed out ruins, sensual nightlife and beaches as an unmatchable draw for tourism, as a case in point. Gaza might be able to learn something from their experience.

Yet between terrorism and tourism, the Middle East has always known of the sad broken promise of peace, something any historian of the region knows is delicate, fragile, ephemeral. Even the Bible tells us so, recounting millennia of war among neighbors.

If peace does break out on a permanent basis, the ceasefire holding, if the blockade is lifted and freer movement occurs, Gaza might be the most interesting place in the world for tourists to visit, to catch up on both their tans and history. The recent United Nations vote on Palestine's status also bodes well for overall stability in the region, meaning Hamas and Fatah will likely have to communicate more often together.

All of this I believe will also humanize what the world thinks of Gaza. Even in my visit with Alafranji, he told me his website's restaurant listings had long been used against Gaza politically as evidence the blockade had no impact on nutrition in the closed territory.

It puzzled him and he asked me, viewing criticism on the website, "why do you find it bad that we have good restaurants? At the end of the day, we are human too."

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