A mini-roundup of some interesting news from the fringes of Middle East tourism.
An interesting story by Gulf News mentions more than a million visitors a year to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, with the authorities targeting a Dubai-style five million by 2015.
My favourite line? “The recent surge in arrivals is a direct result of the international media promoting the area’s tourism potential.” So says the local tourism PR chief anyway. Finally there’s a place where travel writers are truly valued. Mind you, I’ve pitched Iraqi Kurdistan to several different editors here in Britain. All I get is tutting and tooth-sucking. Maybe it’s me.
Adding to the good news: Marriott is opening in Kurdistan, as is Hilton. There are signs of sustainable community-based nature tourism as well – and UK operator Undiscovered Destinations launches a new tour there next month.
Talking of sustainable community-based tourism, take a look at this new website showcasing guesthouses in Palestine.
It’s interesting stuff, inevitably with a political tinge, but also comprising a bunch of good ideas for how to travel independently through the country. There’s an article about it here. The site is compiled by Bradt guide author Sarah Irving – for more on her, see below.
Speaking of which, props to Bradt. They are the only publisher in the world I can think of to have one guidebook to Israel, and another separate guidebook to Palestine (and may the mealy-mouthed ‘Palestinian Territories‘ henceforth be banished to history).
The new Bradt guide to Israel is written by Samantha Wilson. Despite a bit of leakage in the Jerusalem chapter and around Qumran, and (regrettably) a chapter on the Golan Heights, this is remarkable for sticking to its subject. Bethlehem is not covered. The book is a bit light on political perspectives, and the country map on page 2 is frankly bizarre (“Palestinian controlled territory”? “Area of Israeli settlement”?), but it’s a sound effort.
The Bradt guide to Palestine, by Sarah Irving, is classier still. The Israel book is 312 pages; Palestine – though a fraction of the size and with a fraction of the infrastructure – gets 326pp. I’ve seen pre-publication proofs; not the final book. Irving knows her stuff, and has covered the ground intimately. It is refreshing (inspiring? simply bloody wonderful?) to have the Green Line respected in a guidebook. After decades of one-way traffic in terms of travel priorities, travel narratives and travel coverage, Irving reverses the flow. Jerusalem coverage is East Jerusalem coverage. People are front-centre, with homestays featuring prominently and sustainable tourism emphasised. Irving gives informative first-hand accounts of places that not only don’t appear in other guidebooks, but which most other specialist writers (this one included) have never even heard of. I showed her account of Bethlehem to a friend who lives there: after one paragraph he was saying “I never knew that”.
What’s even more interesting is that the last chapter – titled “Palestinian Communities in Israel / Palestinians of 1948” – includes coverage of Nazareth, the Golan (fascinating to compare the two books’ approach), Haifa and elsewhere. This is as much a guide to Palestinians as to Palestine. But it dodges the romantic, armchair-traveller feel of, say, Palestine: A Guide, thanks to an informed journalistic style which is partial but not tub-thumping, and a wealth of practical info on independent travel. It’s a breath of fresh air.
(The only guide on a par is Daniel Jacobs’ outstanding Rough Guide to Jerusalem, which has 300 pages on the city alone, scrupulously balanced, infinitely knowledgeable, quirkily readable. Add in Jacobs’ coverage of Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, Hebron, Masada, the Dead Sea and Jericho, and his book should be much better known than it is.)
Footnote: I haven’t seen Bradt Palestine’s colour maps yet.
Not exactly tourism, but in case you thought everything in the Gulf was new – or commercialised – take a look at the fascinating oral history project Swalif. Click on some of the links to hear stories about life in Qatar before oil, before glitz, before malls, before countless luxury hotels. Arabic audio with English text.
A campaign late last year to push domestic tourism in Oman continues, with starry-eyed op-ed press articles still appearing. It’s all good. Local people travelling for pleasure within their own countries – such as in Lebanon, Israel or Saudi Arabia – fuels rural hospitality, helps diversify tourism economies, improves infrastructure and fosters innovation in non-commercial and/or nature-based attractions. The others in the region should look and learn.