West Bank city pins tourism hopes on UNESCO listing

In the ancient city of Jericho in the occupied West Bank, a prehistoric site has raised Palestinian hopes of a tourism boom after UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site.

Just a few dozen visitors braved the midday sun to stroll around Tell al-Sultan, where archaeologists have unearthed evidence of community life dating back about 10,000 years.

Passersby may not spot the inconspicuous mound tucked away on the edge of Jericho, but it drew international attention in September when it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Residents celebrated with fireworks, well aware that such recognition could change their fortunes.

“For the first time, I felt that there was justice in the world,” said Jericho mayor Abdulkareem Sider.

“Hopefully it will have a significant positive impact on the number of tourists,” he added at his office in city hall, where paintings of Jericho’s heritage adorn the walls.

Jericho boasts a wealth of ancient sites, including the extensive mosaics of Hisham’s Palace, an early Islamic site that Palestinian officials hope will be next to get a UNESCO listing.

A monastery clings to the Mount of Temptation, where Christians believe Jesus struggled with Satan for 40 days, while other biblical sites are dotted across the landscape.

But despite such cultural treasures, visitor numbers remain relatively low.

In the first half of this year, there were 32,535 hotel guests in the Jericho area, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

That compares to 221,377 in Bethlehem, the West Bank town celebrated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.

A Chinese tourist outside Tell al-Sultan admitted she had no idea about the ancient site, telling AFP she was only brought to the adjacent restaurant as part of a bus tour.

Inadequate labelling

Despite the fanfare surrounding the UNESCO announcement, just a few signs at Tell al-Sultan explain the historical significance of the site where a permanent settlement had emerged by the 9th to 8th millennium BC.

Maddie Oto, a 22-year-old American student on an educational tour, suggested the site needs better labelling to make it accessible.

“You have to come here with a guide, to learn the things that we’re learning,” she said at Tell al-Sultan, while a cable car overhead carried visitors to the Mount of Temptation.

Mohammed Mansour, in charge of developing Jericho’s archaeological sites, is mindful of the shortcomings but says improvements are on the way thanks to funding from Italy.

“We will make a new museum with a new entrance, with a walkway for visitors, and also to protect the site, putting some shelters in some areas,” he said.

Mansour’s face lit up as he talked about the 29 cultural layers found at Tell al-Sultan, where thousands of years ago residents were able to build steps up a tower and begin community living and a belief system.

But while domestic and international funding will go some way towards promoting tourism in the city, Palestinians have no actual capacity to issue tourist visas.

Neighbouring Jordan can be seen from Tell al-Sultan but the nearby crossing is controlled by Israel, which has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967.

Both Mansour and the mayor lamented that many tourists come to Jericho as a stop on a broader tour led by guides with Israeli licences and, as a result, visitors often believe they are in Israel rather than the Palestinian territories.

‘Unbelievably beautiful’

The city also draws visits by Israeli Arabs, descendants of Palestinians who stayed on their land after Israel’s creation in 1948.

Shadia Dahamshi, from Kafr Kanna in northern Israel, was wowed by the “unbelievably beautiful” Hisham’s Palace which was recently restored with Japanese funding.

“The place is really, really marvellous,” said the 55-year-old, amazed by the skill of the eighth-century craftsmen who built the fortified residence.

Her relative, however, pointed to the lack of air conditioning in a region where summer temperatures regularly top 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

The mayor aspires to improve the visitor experience by lighting up the ancient sites so that they can be toured after dark, as well as encouraging tourists to explore more of the Jordan Valley.

“One day is not enough!” said Sider, who wants to develop tours of the date palms surrounding the city and walking trails through the valley.

Tourists can travel to the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea or discover local cuisine, he added.

“Jericho is the oldest city in the world, so it’s the right for all people” to visit, said the mayor.