In what (to my knowledge) is a world first, luxury tour operator Martin Randall Travel – known for running fully escorted cultural and historical tours on highbrow themes, chiefly to destinations in Europe – has announced a tour for March 2012 focused exclusively on Palestine.
The eight-day tour’s key selling-point is that it remains inside Palestinian territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for its entire duration, bar the one-hour road journey to and from Tel Aviv airport. In the world of mainstream package travel, this is pretty much unique.
Many outbound tour operators in Britain and around the world offer Palestine add-ons to an Israel-based itinerary – usually dipping into Bethlehem and out again without staying overnight, sometimes also with a couple of hours in Jericho – and there are also politically-minded ‘alternative’ tours which visit West Bank hotspots to show and explain issues surrounding the conflict.
But I don’t know of any other fully bonded, accredited, mass-market tour company in Britain – or, come to that, the world – which treats Palestine as a destination of cultural and historical interest on its own merits, deserving of a complete one-country itinerary, without reference to Israel.
(If you do, please tell me in the comment section below – and give a link if you can.)
In keeping with the Martin Randall style, the tour stays in upscale luxury hotels throughout: four nights at the wonderful Bethlehem InterContinental Jacir Palace, two nights at the Jericho InterContinental and one night at the new Mövenpick Ramallah. Nothing left to chance! Similarly, the accompanying ‘expert lecturer’ is eminent Middle East historian and archaeologist Dr Felicity Cobbing.
But it’s the itinerary which stands out. It’s unusually well-judged, and remarkable for consistently delaying typical package-tour tickbox gratification.
Clients are in-country for a full 48 hours, sampling little-visited sites in open countryside and rugged desert, and seeing the suffering of Hebron at first hand, before finally being allowed to tour Palestine’s number one attraction, the always-crowded Church of the Nativity in central Bethlehem, late on Day 3. By then, they’ll feel like insiders amid the wide-eyed newcomers.
For Middle East tourism-watchers Day 4 is a landmark, going stubbornly against the near-universal flow by daytripping to Jerusalem from an overnight base in Bethlehem – again, special insight, special exclusivity.
Day 7 covers ground right across the West Bank, from Jericho (desert) to Sebastia (countryside) to Nablus (heritage city) to Ramallah (business capital) – ancient history mixed with a first-hand view of how contemporary politics is shaping the land and society. The local guide – if s/he’s worth his salt – will be working overtime here.
And Day 8 looks like it covers experiences about which very few other package tourists to Jerusalem have even the first inkling – the drive from Ramallah via the notorious Qalandia crossing to spend most of a day in East Jerusalem, without once setting foot over the Green Line.
I don’t often say this about package tour firms, but here goes – this is bold, intelligent, thoughtfully crafted and genuinely ground-breaking travel.
And, at long last, there’s no pussy-footing around. The guides will be Palestinian. The transport will be Palestinian. The food, lodging, ambience and outlook will be Palestinian. A good chunk of money (and prestige) will remain within Palestine. The tour simply enters through Israel (since Palestine has no airport), but spends no time there – it’s like flying Ryanair to Vienna, where the plane happens to lands in Slovakia but the Austrian capital is only an hour’s drive away.
In short, it will be just like a historical/cultural tour to any other country in the world. Local.
Israel has hosted such tours for decades. Israeli tourism infrastructure is superb, Israeli tourist attractions world-class. But why refer to one country when you’re running a tour to another? Israel’s neighbour is emerging to stand alone, in its own spotlight, on its own terms. Martin Randall’s tour, Bradt’s guidebook, switched-on ground agents such as ATG and Siraj – who’ve created, for instance, Walk Palestine, Bike Palestine and JerusalemWilderness.com – as well as a growing grassroots infrastructure and eye-catching private-sector promotion all signal new confidence in Palestinian tourism.
But Martin Randall haven’t exactly been shouting about their tour. I haven’t seen a press release – and you can’t even access details of the tour from the usual search facilities on the company’s own website, since (irony of ironies) Palestine is not listed as a destination country – and the “Israel & Palestine” option points at a different tour. You have to choose History or Archaeology from the Tour Theme menu to find it.
I wonder why. Do they not have the courage of their convictions?
I hope everyone knows now.
Disclosure: Although this post looks like one long advertorial, it isn’t. Martin Randall haven’t paid me a penny to write it; nobody has. I wrote it off my own bat, without reference to any third party, and I have no stake – financial or otherwise – in whether this tour succeeds or fails. The fact it exists at all is what interests me.