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World first for Martin Randall?

14 November 2011

Hebron

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.

Click here for tour details.

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.)

Well-judged

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.

Local

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.

Unaware

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?

Even the Palestinian tourism minister, when I mentioned this tour to her at the WTM travel trade fair in London recently, wasn’t aware of it.

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 November 2011 10.31am

    Well spotted, Matthew! And well done Martin!

    When I saw the large Palestine stand at World Travel market last week, I remembered it was only a few years ago that I chanced upon the only sign of an emergent Palestinian tourist industry – a single sheet press release on an out-of-the-way shelf in the press resource room at WTM announcing that the Palestinian Authority hoped to have a presence at WTM the next year. How things have changed. Hooray.

  2. 16 November 2011 11.52am

    Many thanks, Alastair.

    Interesting – do you remember when that was? Tourism prospects were buoyant in 1999 & 2000, around the Vatican’s Jubilee jamboree, but then plummeted after Sept 2000 during the Second Intifada. Then there was 9/11 the following year, and the Jenin massacre & siege of Bethlehem in 2002, etc etc. I don’t know how long they’ve been exhibiting at WTM, but it can only have been the last 4 or 5 years I suppose…

    FYI, the indefatigable Raed Saadeh also gave a talk at the Adventure Travel World Summit a year ago on the growth of experiential tourism in Palestine. Ball is rolling…

  3. Sarah Irving permalink
    16 November 2011 5.52pm

    The ball is rolling indeed, though bumping around a bit. Great to see this package being tried out – I’ve known about various Palestine + Israel tours (didn’t the Ramblers do one for a short while? – though I think using the cunning Rough Guide technique of calling it ‘Jerusalem’ – and then the slightly odd-looking one from Bestway in Canada – http://www.bestway.com/itineraries/t064.php). But acknowledging that there is high-end provision in Palestine and a potential market for it is indeed interesting… thanks for this, Matthew.

  4. 16 November 2011 8.07pm

    Most welcome, Sarah, thanks for your insight. Yes, there have been several Is+Pal tours floating around – Ramblers was one, I think you’re right. That Bestway one IS peculiar – 2nts Nazareth, 7nts Bethlehem?

  5. 26 November 2011 9.54am

    The Palestinian stand at this year’s WTM was the best ever. We have always been impressed by the awesome resilience of the Palestinian people since we worked with them on the Nativity Trail in 1999 and subsequent years. They deserve to succeed as do Martin Randall Travel.

  6. 28 November 2011 12.30pm

    Many thanks for that, Tony. Well-chosen words. I agree entirely.

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