Gaza sets its sights on tourist dollars

Officials view history, beaches as `oil of Palestine'


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Gaza's director of tourism, Moain Sadeq, still recalls the last tourists to visit the Gaza Strip.

It was September 2000, and a group of 30 Israeli scholars had come to see Gaza's archaeological sites, including the remains of an early Bronze Age walled city near Gaza's commercial center.

Sadeq, an archaeologist by profession, guided the curious, somewhat nervous visitors through the excavations of mud brick walls, giving him hope that someday the site would be added to the list of must-sees for travelers to the Holy Land.

By the next day, the Palestinian uprising erupted, driving Gaza into its darkest period of bloodshed, economic collapse and isolation. For the next five years, Gaza was a place that people preferred to flee.

Gazans and the Palestinian Authority are looking to rebuild this sliver of land and, in the process, create a viable economy for an area where 60 percent unemployment is the norm. They talk of factories, greenhouses, new housing, a busy seaport and tourism.

"We like to think of tourism as the oil of Palestine, and we know we can create jobs and we can develop our country," Sadeq says, sitting in his fifth-story office in the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism in Gaza City.

Apart from a few adventure travelers it's hard to imagine many people flocking here.

A crowded, dirty, volatile area twice the size of Washington D.C., Gaza has been dismissed as "the Middle East's armpit." In Israel, telling someone to "go to Gaza" is the colorful way of telling the person to "go to hell."

That's just how many Palestinians would describe life here. In the weeks since the Palestinians celebrated the Israeli withdrawal, a brief period of optimism has been replaced by near chaos and daily reminders of the challenges the Palestinian Authority faces to make Gaza function for the people living here -- forget about visitors.

Late last month an explosion at a rally organized by Hamas militants killed 21 people and wounded dozens more. Then Israel, responding to a barrage of Palestinian rocket attacks, launched a large military offensive against Gaza that included airstrikes, targeted killings and artillery.

Last week, Palestinian security forces and members of Hamas traded gunfire in the streets of Gaza City, leaving three people dead, including a Palestinian police officer. Dozens of armed Palestinian police, who were protesting the deteriorating security situation, burst into Gaza's parliament building in Gaza City, firing their weapons in the air.

Not exactly the place to write a postcard saying, "Wish you were here."

Sadeq sees Gaza differently, as does Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who set out this year to encourage the international community to help develop Gaza's tourism potential.

Gaza has 25 miles of Mediterranean coastline with warm, inviting water, gentle waves and cushion-soft sand, Sadeq points out, describing Gaza's best face. Visitors can dine in restaurants serving fresh fish and Palestinian dishes. Hotels offer sea-front rooms for a fraction of the cost tourists would pay in Israel.

Then there is the obvious draw of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which travelers in search of edgier destinations might find attractive.

"Many people want to know about the social life of Gaza and they want to know about the political situation," Sadeq says.

He has visions of integrating Gaza's archaeology and its beaches into tourist attractions. His first market will be Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank who he believes must learn to appreciate their own history and its resources before worrying about getting other Arabs, Europeans or Americans to visit.

But as with so much else in Gaza, its tourism prospects remain intertwined with actions by Israel, which maintains control of who and what is allowed in and out. Israel has yet to agree on a date for reopening Gaza's airport and a seaport is years away from completion, making just getting into Gaza tricky for outsiders.

Even if international tourists reached Gaza's shores, it's hard to know whether it would be most people's idea of a vacation. Deeply conservative, Gaza is not a place where women in bikinis would be found playing on the beach. Nor is it the place to book for spring break. Alcohol is forbidden.

Still, Sadeq's job is to make plans for the future, and so he does. On a recent tour of the Gaza Strip, Sadeq pointed out some of Gaza's major attractions, from the beach, to mosques, to restaurants and hotels.

More visible are Gaza's shortcomings. Even to a forgiving eye, it is a bleak landscape of bombed-out and unfinished buildings, huge piles of rubble and earth and sea breeze-driven clouds of dust and garbage.

Hidden in the mess are a few historical gems: old mosques, early Christian churches, the walls of the civilizations that passed through here over the centuries.

Sadeq thinks one of Gaza's main draws might be the remains of a monastery founded by St. Hilarion in the fourth century.

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