A desert wilderness beckons ... in Palestine

WADI QELT, Israel — High up among these semi-arid hills exists one of the world's least known and accessible wildernesses. Gazelle and rock hyrax roam here while raptors, white storks and honey buzzards circle over the desert landscape below.

A tourist's paradise, according to one entrepreneurial local, if only the tourists knew about it ... and were allowed in.

Imad Atrash, head of the Palestinian Wildlife Society, envisages treks through desert landscape, birdwatching tours, and the opportunity to glimpse this indigenous wildlife.

But forget the tented camps and fitted jeeps — this is no African safari. This is the Palestinian territory of the West Bank and until recently it was locked in a cycle of violence and economic depression.

Atrash hopes that adventurous tourists will see beyond the headlines and take a chance on the possibilities that West Bank travel has to offer.

He even goes so far as to enthuse about the possibilities of ecotourism in a region that most vacationers visit only in passing on a trip to Israel.

With his telescope, Atrash picks out a rock hyrax, a rabbit-like creature that sleeps for most of the day, lying slumped midway up a cliff across from the dramatic St George’s Monastery.

But if a sleepy hyrax doesn’t top the “must-see” list, Palestine has much more to offer, he points out: holy sights in Bethlehem, monasteries perched on hilltops, dramatic views of rolling desert-like landscape above Jericho, and Roman ruins to the North.

West Bank’s tourism industry is in its infancy. Deterred by the imposing security wall that rings Jerusalem to the east, most tourists only make it through the checkpoints to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, as part of a one-day coach tour from Israel, depriving hotels of crucial income.

The Dead Sea, famed for its healing properties, also draws thousands of visitors in a single day, but its banks — and resorts — fall under Israeli jurisdiction, lying as they do in the border zone with Jordan.


Nevertheless, the West Bank is receiving an important boost from the British government, which pledged to develop commercial partnerships with the Palestinian territories at a conference hosted by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London last December.

"If you have people pushing [tourism] forward here, you can actually do something," says Paul Taylor of U.K. Trade and Investment, who was leading a small trade mission of British tourism experts to the region. "There is an image problem … which isn’t connected to reality."

In early fall, birds flock to the Palestinian valleys on their migratory journey southwards. Atrash points to a Palestine sunbird — not quick enough for his visitors to see — that represents the daily battles that characterize Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“The Israelis wanted to change its name to the orange-tufted sunbird,” Atrash says. “We faced up to them, and they kept it as the Palestine sunbird.”

“There is a war between us on these issues,” he adds.

While he refers lightly to the bureaucratic hurdles that complicate his job, the threat of a renewal of hostilities with the Israelis is never far away. Israeli settlements straddling nearby hills and the burst of gunfire from a nearby military range underscore the fragility of peace here.

Still, the impending arrival of budget airlines to the region, and an economic boom buoyed by the easing of Israeli restrictions in the West Bank offer a glimpse of what could be.

“I’m really impressed,” says Alison Cryer, a member of the delegation, and managing director of Representation Plus, which markets tourism destinations. “They do have the product. It’s just a question of packaging it up.”