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'Honestly, it’s not a good time for Israelis to visit,' former city councilman says

It has new, low-cost, rave-reviewed luxury hotels, but Ramallah struggles to lure tourists

The PA’s seat of power is well-liked by reviewers, but few vacationers are being wooed. Where Israelis are concerned, that’s hardly surprising

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Moevenpick Hotel, Ramallah. (HotelsCombined.com)
Moevenpick Hotel, Ramallah. (HotelsCombined.com)

The Palestinian city of Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem, is opening its arms to tourists, marking itself as a hip, energetic destination with accommodations and attractions matching anything Israel can offer — and for about half the price. But so far, the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy hasn’t quite worked.

The city, home to the Palestinian Authority’s main headquarters and office buildings, has grown in recent years into a modern, bustling Middle Eastern metropolis, and is a window into the political, cultural and social lives of the Palestinian people.

Over the past decade, the city has also seen three five-star hotels open — with another on the way — ostensibly a sign that Ramallah’s tourism prospects are looking up.

The hotels are receiving rave reviews online, and charge only about half as much as comparable accommodations in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Two hostels are also available for the thrifty traveler.

But according to information provided by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, though the number of five-star hotels may be on the rise in the city, the number of guests visiting in recent years has hardly changed, and the occupancy rate hovers at around just 27 percent, on average.

Young boys play on a statue in downtown Ramallah's clock square on Aug. 4., 2015. Photo by Micah Bond/FLASH90
Young boys play on a statue in downtown Ramallah’s clock square on August 4., 2015. (Micah Bond/FLASH90)

According to Kamal Diabes, who was a member of Ramallah’s city council for four years, until May, plans to increase tourism to the city have been in play for at least seven years. He pointed to two tourist help centers that opened in 2011 in Ramallah and its twin city El-Bireh.

“It’s special. There are no other places like Ramallah in Palestine,” he said, pointing specifically to the city’s many museums, religious diversity and celebrations, and the fact that a tourist can “have a good time” in a club or bar.

The city was founded in the 16th century by Christians from Jordan, and remained a majority-Christian city up until the Six Day War in 1967. Today, there are no exact statistics as to how many Christians live in Ramallah, but the city is growing fast. The total population at the end of 2016 was 362,445, up from 263,956 in 2002.

The municipality doesn’t have official figures for how many tourists have visited in recent years. Its only metric is the number of travelers who stop at the two tourist centers — according to employees who work there, about 40-60 people a day.

For Israelis, Ramallah isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when thinking of tourist destinations. During the First Intifada of the late 1980s and early ’90s, and the Second Intifada of the early 2000s — which saw Israel targeted by a strategic onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombers — the city was a hub of anti-Israel activity, and scenes of clashes between Israeli soldiers and protesters in the streets dominated news networks.

In one particularly gruesome incident in the year 2000, an angry Palestinian mob broke into the police station that was holding two Israeli reservists and lynched them.

Protesters hold portraits of Palestinian prisoners during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah to show their support of Palestinians detained in Israeli jails, after hundreds of them launched a hunger strike on April 17, 2017. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)
Protesters hold portraits of Palestinian prisoners during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah to show their support of Palestinians detained in Israeli jails, after hundreds of them launched a hunger strike on April 17, 2017. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

There’s also the fact that, by Israeli law, it’s illegal for Israelis to travel there without permission from the army, as is the case with other parts of the West Bank’s Area A, under full control of the Palestinian Authority. Red signs at the entrance to the city warn Israelis that entering can be life-threatening.

Still, despite some incidents in recent years of Israeli civilians having their property damaged, there have been no major attacks on Israelis there, and some, especially those who hold foreign passports, make the jaunt regularly.

“Honestly,” said Diabes, “it’s not a good time for Israelis to visit.”

He explained that Israelis who know exactly where they are going, and are accompanied by a Palestinian, are safe, and added that he knows of Jewish Israelis who visit friends in Ramallah.

However, if an Israeli who only speaks Hebrew were to visit the city, Diabes said, that person might be mistaken as a settler, which could be dangerous.

“It’s not easy to accept an Israeli settler,” he said, explaining that many Palestinians are frustrated by “Israeli land grabs” in the West Bank.

Israel considers the West Bank “disputed territory” — though it acknowledges that its Palestinian residents are protected by international treaties on the rights of occupied people — and argues the fate of the settlements should be decided in peace talks.

The US State Department warns Americans in the West Bank to “maintain a high degree of situational awareness and exercise caution at all times, especially at checkpoints and other areas with a significant presence of security forces.” The State Department also notes that Ramallah is heavily secured by the Palestinian internal security forces. Just an hour in the city is enough to see this is true.

High ratings, low prices, few guests

The height of Ramallah luxury is actually a Swiss/British import: the Millennium hotel, which until May 29, 2016 was part of the Movenpick chain. The five-star hotel has 171 rooms, two presidential suites, an Italian restaurant, two bar lounges, a gym, and an outdoor heated pool.

Across the numerous booking sites, the hotel has received rave reviews, including a 4.7 out of 5 stars on hotels.com and 9.7 out 10 on hotelscombined.com. Reviews on TripAdvisor were equally glowing, with most visitors praising the professional quality of the staff and service.

In comparison, Israel’s five-star hotels in Tel Aviv received scores between 7 and 8 on Hotels Combined.

At Movenpick Ramallah, a luxury room goes for around $250 a night, while similar accommodations in Tel Aviv cost around $500.

When The Times of Israel visited the hotel in February, management politely declined to answer questions, including regarding the occupancy rate and the nationalities of its guests. Reviews on booking.com show a mix of Europeans and Arabs, as well as many Israeli Arabs. In February, the elaborate lobby was nearly empty.

The Palestine Plaza, another five-star hotel, is in the city’s tallest building and on good-weather days the Mediterranean sea is visible. There, a room goes for $180 a night.

The Grand Park Hotel, whose lobby and bar are a favorite meeting place for Palestinian officials and journalists, is also top-rated, and a room there goes for $230 a night.

Another five-star hotel, the Carmel, is currently under construction, Diabes said.

Ayal Segal, the CEO of Australia-based Hotels Combined said in a press release in January that the PA was experiencing a “revolution in tourism,” with hotels that offer an “international standard.”

Statistics from the PCBS show the majority of hotel guests in the West Bank are Europeans, followed by Israelis and then Palestinians.

View from the Palestine Plaza Hotel in Ramallah. (Credit: HotelsCombined.com)
View from the Palestine Plaza Hotel in Ramallah. (HotelsCombined.com)

While no statistics are available for hotels specifically in Ramallah, PCBS figures for the “middle West Bank,” including Ramallah, neighboring El-Bireh, Jericho and Al-Aghwar, show an average occupancy rate of 27% annually in recent years.

In comparison, in 2015, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, Tel Aviv hotels had a 70% occupancy rate, while in Jerusalem that number was 55%.

In 2008, when five-star hotels began appearing in Ramallah, the total number of guests in the “middle West Bank” was 82,055. In 2016, that number fell to 67,897.

Diabes argued that due to Israeli travel restrictions and the difficulty of attaining a visa from Israel to visit the Palestinian Authority, many Arab tourists pass on staying in Ramallah. If they do travel to the region, he said, they prefer to stay in Jerusalem, where they have access to the al Aqsa Mosque or Christian holy sites.

Those Westerners who do stay in Ramallah hotels, he said, are likely coming in for official or business purposes, or, as in the case of Arab Israelis, visiting family.

For those who do have permission to visit the city — as this article notes, Israelis are forbidden from traveling there — here is some relevant information.

Getting into and around Ramallah

Driving:

The easiest way to get into Ramallah is by car. If you are driving, enter and exit the West Bank through the Hizme checkpoint: It is far safer, simpler and quicker to pass through than the main Jerusalem-Ramallah crossing at Qalandiya. See here for the location of the Hizme checkpoint.

And don’t worry about having an Israeli license plate; they are very common in Palestinian cities. However, do make sure to check if your rental car has insurance for Palestinian cities, as it rarely comes standard.

Public transportation:

It’s also relatively simple to enter Ramallah by public transportation. There is a bus stop across from the Damascus Gate just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. The bus is clearly marked Ramallah. Along the way, you will pass through the Qalandiya Checkpoint. Going in, you will not need to show ID, but coming back into Israel, you must show a valid ID that enables you to be in Israel, or you will be sent back to Ramallah.

Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians seen at the palestinian bus station in East Jerusalem, boarding the bus to Ramallah. (Photo by Noam Moskowitz / Flash 90)
Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians seen at the Palestinian bus station in East Jerusalem, boarding the bus to Ramallah. (Noam Moskowitz / Flash 90)

Once you pass the crossing — and Israel’s security barrier — you are still technically in Jerusalem. As you continue toward Ramallah, you will see Hebrew signs, and if you look closely, the markings of the Jerusalem municipality.

Take the bus all the way to the final stop. You will exit the bus station in El-Bireh, which is actually just a few minutes away from the center of Ramallah.

If you wish to come back into Israel at night, make sure to get back to this bus station before 8 p.m., when the last bus leaves.

What to do:

Your first stop in Ramallah should be to the El-Bireh cultural and tourist center, located in sight of the central bus station. There, English-speaking representatives can tell you about any special events happening in the city that day, which can be anything from folk and salsa dance events, special art exhibits, and live jazz.

Summertime is when the majority of tourists visit — winter can be cold — but numbers are still quite low. According to representatives at the tourist center, there is an average of 20-30 tourists a day.

Posted by Mohammad Silwadi on Thursday, June 15, 2017

Most crucially, the center can provide an English tourist map of the city, which you will need.

One can walk around Ramallah with ease, but the best way to get around, and it’s not so expensive, is by cab.

Every Thursday, there is a historical tour that leaves from the tourist center in Ramallah’s old city at 9 a.m. During the tour, if you’re so inclined, you can visit the tomb of Yasser Arafat and get a sense of how the first Palestinian Authority president, who before that was the leader of the largest Palestinian terror group for decades, is venerated.

The Ramallah mausoleum where former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is buried (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
The Ramallah mausoleum where former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is buried (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

From the El-Bireh tourist center, you are a short walk away from Manara Square — the main traffic circle of the city, which often hosts political displays.

Before you go, you might consider starting your day at the nearby Turkish bath. You can also circle back there later on, as the women’s section closes at 8 p.m. and the men’s section four hours later.

The Turkish Bath – Alsharqi – Ramallah/Albereh 022428281 Men Section Relax, Enjoy and Stress Release

Posted by The Turkish Bath Palestine on Saturday, October 8, 2016

On the way to Manara, you’ll pass through an outdoor fruit and vegetable market. Once at the square, you can try a fresh fruit shake from the well-known al-Silwadi shop. A large shake won’t cost more than two-and-half dollars. For a quick energy hit, you can try a regional classic: the sugar cane smoothie.

Also at Manara Square is the famous Stars-N-Bucks cafe, where you can get WiFi and coffee, if you need a pit stop.

View from above the Manara Square in the center of the West Bank city of Ramallah, at evening time. September 11, 2011. (Photo by Nati Shohat/FLASH90)
View from above the Manara Square in the center of the West Bank city of Ramallah, evening, September 11, 2011. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

From Manara, head down to Ramallah’s old city, which is the Christian quarter and also known as Tahta, meaning the downtown area.

There, one can find old churches, mosques, museums and liquor stores.

While strolling through the Tahta, make sure to visit one of Ramallah’s most famous hummus joints, Bandali, where ice water, fresh chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice and rich olive oil are the ingredients to one of the city’s most beloved dishes.

From downtown you can walk or take a cab to one of Ramallah’s nicest neighborhoods, Al Maysoon, where quiet streets overlooking the bustling city are lined with fancy homes.

Here, you can find upscale restaurants such as Orjuwan, which serves a Palestinian-Mediterranean cuisine, including delicious meat, seafood and wine.

If you are looking for something a little more casual, you can visit the Garage Cafe, a hipster joint that wouldn’t look out of place in Greenwich Village.

Posted by Garage Coffee Shop & BAR on Friday, September 18, 2015

Inside the cafe, you can enjoy light jazz music, burgers, deli sandwiches, and a selection of beers on tap, while you rub shoulders with local Palestinian artists.

It even serves a BLT for NIS 27 ($7.50), which works mighty well with an equally reasonably priced large glass of Hoegaarden.

Once you’ve had your meal, if you are feeling up for it, you can see the nightlife Ramallah has to offer.

Snow Bar in Ramallah is a really pleasant, chilled out spot. We smoked shisha and enjoyed excellent food.

Posted by Jonathan Sacerdoti on Friday, May 19, 2017

Snobar, meaning pines in Arabic, is the most well-known bar in Ramallah. The bar takes its name from the pine trees surrounding the mostly outdoor complex, a tranquil getaway in a fast-paced city. The site boasts a grill, a brick oven for pizza and even an outdoor pool (it’s only open in the warm months).

Snobar, located in the another upscale district called al-Irsal, is not far away from Manara Square. Any taxi driver is likely to know how to find it.

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