Tony Blair was in Bethlehem today (3 December, 2014) to discuss plans to increase tourism to the Palestinian territories.
Mr. Blair visited the Mount David Institute - an expansive building in the city, which Bethlehem University plans to turn into a state-of-the art training hotel. Brother Peter Bray, Vice Chancellor of the University, set out for Mr. Blair the University’s vision to transform the site into a training facility that will expand and deepen the professional credentials of Palestinians working in the tourism sector. The goal is to raise the level of service in the Palestinian tourism industry, Brother Peter told the OQR delegation.
The Institute of Hotel Management and Tourism has operated at the University since it opened in 1973. It currently offers a Master in Tourism Studies and Bachelor of Science in Hotel Management, among other diploma studies. The University is now seeking to expand its work to include vocational training, which would significantly boost the quality and experience of staff working in Palestinian hotels and other parts of the tourism industry.
The Office of the Quartet Representative is working closely with Bethlehem University on this project, including through connections with potential donors and expert advice on developing the premises.
Mr. Blair commended Bethlehem University for their hard work and vision. He said that "Tourism is central to what we're trying to do under the Initiative for the Palestinian Economy." He added that while political challenges had an impact on tourism, there is also a challenge with the current quality of the offer for tourists. By improving the offer and quality of service, more tourists would stay overnight, and would go home and recommend the Palestinian territories as a destination.
Also in Bethlehem, Mr. Blair met with Minister of Tourism Rula Ma’ayah, who stressed the importance of encouraging growth in the tourism sector as a way to support economic development. She also briefed him on the political situation.
In a meeting with Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun, the Quartet Representative said “my office is working hard on the issue of tourism. We want to work with the municipality, to do everything we can to support the work that you are doing Madame Mayor, and to make sure that whatever happens with the politics of the situation - which we obviously want to alter - in the meantime it's important to do what we can and try and make sure that the tourism sector gets the support and help it needs, and the investment.”
Blair added that “Bethlehem is one of the great historic sites of the world. It’s somewhere that people love to come, but I am sure many more people would like to come than do presently and I know we have got a lot of work to do together in order to make sure that that happens.”
He explained that tourism is one of the sectors covered by the Initiative for the Palestinian Economy, and that under the plan, “we are trying to develop different hubs of tourism, one of which is Bethlehem. What we want to do is look at how we improve the quality of access into Bethlehem and the ability of Palestinians to be tour guides, the people who actually show people Bethlehem. We want to improve the quality of the offer that is there from the tourism sector and to get the investment in new facilities, in local business. So this is important for employment, it's important for the city and it's important for the future of a Palestinian state.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Blair met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin – their first meeting since his appointment as president. “I want to congratulate you on the important work you are doing, and for the strength and clarity you have shown on the issues of concern to us all,” Mr. Blair said. “Particularly over the past months when things have been difficult here, your words have had a great resonance, not only in Israel but outside too." The President said “Israel sees you as a friend, with whom we see eye to eye on the problems and obstacles we face across the region.” He thanked Mr. Blair for the work he is doing together with the international community on the rehabilitation of Gaza, saying “the rehabilitation of Gaza is in the interest of Israel as it to the whole region.”