On any given day, Muslim pilgrims arrive at a Middle East airport on a journey to one of Islam’s holiest sites.
At Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, they rub shoulders with larger groups of visitors - diaspora Jews and Christian tourists - many of them headed for the same destination, a 45-minute drive away: the sacred city of Jerusalem.
The Muslims are only a small part of the Holy Land’s religious tourism market. But both Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank are vying for their business.
They come mainly to pray at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, in a compound that is one of the world’s most contested and volatile holy sites. Al-Aqsa is the most important shrine in Islam after Saudi Arabia’s Mecca and Medina, but less of a draw for foreign Muslims, many of whose countries spurn Israel or its claim of sovereignty over the eastern sector of Jerusalem, captured in the 1967 war.
Israel’s Tourism Ministry recorded 115,000 Muslim tourists in 2016 - 3 percent of the 3.8 million foreigners who arrived at its airports or land borders it controls with Jordan and Egypt.
Half of these Muslim tourists identified as pilgrims, the ministry said. Most of them - around 100,000 - came from Turkey, which recognizes Israel. But there were also some from Indonesia and Malaysia, which do not, and whose citizens Israel admits under special provisions for pilgrims.
Each Muslim tourist spends an average of $1,133 on the trip, the Israeli ministry said. Palestinians fret that too much of that goes to Israel and want the tourists to opt for alternative Palestinian venues in Jerusalem or the West Bank.
“We have been conducting a campaign to introduce Turkish tourist companies to Palestinian hotels in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and we have started to see many of them booking their rooms in these hotels,” said Jereyes Qumseyah, spokesman for the Palestinian Tourism Ministry.
He said the Palestinians have permanent displays at major tourism conferences in Turkey.
The Palestinian ministry offered no statistics on the scope of foreign tourism to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But Qumseyah said Palestinians are also enjoying “big success” in teaming up their tour companies with counterparts in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Arab world so to draw more pilgrims.