The rise of Jericho

JERICHO, Israel — Jericho claims to be the oldest city in the world, where Joshua is said to have made the walls come tumbling down and where King Herod the Great built his winter palaces.

In more recent times, Jericho was the winter seat of the Jerusalem and Amman aristocracy. Yet a globalized Palestinian elite coupled with a volatile political situation turned Jericho into a provincial has-been resort town. Efforts to reinvent the city in the 1990s foundered during the Second Intifada.

Now, after a long economic standstill, Jericho is shaking loose Israeli control and restarting tourism efforts.

"Jericho is the lowest city in the world, and it's on the border crossing between Palestine and Jordan," said Mayor Hassan Saleh.

Saleh said the city was launching a "Jericho 10,000" campaign this year with the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism to celebrate the city's long history. Russia is bankrolling a new museum, and the United States and Japan are funding solar energy projects. He hopes to double the city's annual 1 million visitors. Moreover, he said, out-of-town Palestinians had been snapping up plots of land for second homes in five new housing developments.

"Jericho is special because it's the only place in the West Bank that has enough land to expand," Saleh said.

To some extent, the efforts are already bearing fruit. In February, Jericho recorded 58,317 visitors, far above the previous two years. Part of that is because the Israeli army removed the main checkpoint to the city this June, which has been replaced by a Palestinian-manned station. The result is that Jericho is feeling the economic upswing that has spread across the West Bank, according to Palestinian economist Samir Abdullah.

"The tourist facilities dried up [in the Second Intifada]," Abdullah said. "Maybe this is the first winter that the touristic facilities in Jericho feel the demand. ... You feel it also from the land prices. They are picking up all over the Jericho area."

Nowhere is the city’s unmet potential and hopeful future more evident than at the 10-year-old, 180-room Intercontinental Hotel, which rises imperiously at the city's southern entrance. On an oven-hot afternoon in March, three hotel workers dangled their feet into a waterless children's pool. Nearby, an adult's pool was filled with water but was devoid of swimmers. A month later, during Easter, resort manager Yousef Salman said the hotel saw business boosted to its highest levels since the Second Intifada.

"April was excellent, we had 77 percent occupancy," he said. "Last year was 61 percent."

Salman says part of this is a general tourism boom in Israel. Pilgrims who cannot find rooms in Jerusalem go to Jericho. Without a major regional war, he hopes the trend will continue.

"The city is helping out tremendously," Salman added. "They are opening new roads, and security is top-top."

The Intercontinental is an important litmus test for Jericho's plans.

When it opened in 2000, the hotel and its neighboring Oasis Casino were part of an effort to re-orient the local economy to outside tourists, including Israelis who couldn't gamble at home. They were built to fill in a lacuna left behind when the Palestinian upper crust outgrew their old resort town.

Ali Qleibo, 52, grew up in Jerusalem's Old City and remembers fondly the trips he took with his family, a branch of the prominent Nusseibehs.

"It used to be the thing to do — to walk in the afternoon and go to the restaurants and cafes along the main street, up to 1988," Qleibo said. "But [the old generation] died, and their children left."

Qleibo bucked the trend and bought a pink cottage surrounded by lemon and orange trees, where he could host sunny meals outside. But during the Second Intifada, the Israeli security measures isolated Jericho. Qleibo, who writes, paints and teaches for a living, found himself trekking four kilometers just to tend his garden.

Today, even with the improved access to Jericho, the lifestyle of urban "gentleman-farmers," is on the wane, Qleibo said. Central heating in Jerusalem lessened Jericho's cache. The main restaurant avenue, Muntazahat Street, is lined with empty or shuttered eateries. On a January afternoon, Qleibo's daughter Aida showed off pictures from a recent ski trip in France. It's a sharp cosmopolitan contrast to Jericho's dusty roads, where old men pedal ancient bicycles and greengrocers use metal weights to sell giant banana stalks.

Mayor Salah also acknowledges that tastes have changed.

"People are visiting the cable car, [Elijah's Spring], swimming pools and the Spanish park," he said. "We have to change our methods and facilities."

Yet Abdullah, the economist, said that Jericho's current status — nearly empty in winter — is actually the anomaly.

"Jericho in the 1970s was always a place where you could find people from outside the city," he said. "The city would double its citizens in the winter all the time, and on the weekends you would find that Jericho would have more than 5 times its visitors. So this [revitalization] would bring Jericho back to its original look actually."