Tourism is the life-blood of the Egyptian economy. It could be the same for Gaza if the Israeli Occupation and siege ended. Tourism is more important than ever in this fractured and divided world because people need to meet each other, share a cup of coffee or tea, and talk (not on Facebook, but in the “real” world).
The Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza is not conducive to tourism; it’s clearly designed to impede passage. Only the heartiest of travelers will make the effort to cross (or Palestinians who require medical attention in Cairo).
In August 2011, I was turned away at the border by the Egyptian authorities, even though I had a written invitation from the university in Gaza and a valid Egyptian Visa. No explanation was given.
The United States government doesn’t want Americans traveling to Gaza, having officially designated Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Last year, officials in the US Embassy in Cairo tried their best to deter me, finally charging me $50 for a notarized disclaimer that they had duly warned me not to travel. If I needed assistance while in Gaza, they told me not to bother calling the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, they wouldn’t be able to do anything for me.
This year, I didn’t even bother notifying the US Embassy about my travel plans. In September 2012, I successfully made it through the Rafah crossing. Three months later, it was time to return to Egypt.
Three days before departure, I purchased my “exit” ticket in Gaza City for 60 shekels. Then I went to another office where my name was put on a list and I was handed a slip with the date and time of my passage, as well as assigned #5. It wasn’t until the day of travel that I understood the significance of #5.
My journey from Gaza to Cairo took 15 hours; crossing the border was an excruciating FIVE HOURS!!
There were three different reception halls (2 on the Palestinian side and one on the Egyptian side) each requiring longer than an hour’s wait.
Officials on both sides of the border need to make changes if they hope to build vibrant trade and tourism. (Don’t talk to me about terrorists! In the 21st century, the world leaders need to GROW UP and learn to communicate about their differences, not pin labels on each other.)
So here’s my advice column to the Egyptian and Palestinian authorities who have responsibility for the Rafah border crossing.
#1 Sit down with each other and negotiate an agreement that benefits both Egypt and Palestine. Forget the U.S. and Israel. They should have nothing to do with the decisions about YOUR border.
#2 Why do you place a quota on the number of travelers between Egypt and Gaza? I’ve heard the number is between 400-500 travelers per day. Is that the number of people leaving Gaza or the number of people permitted to enter, or both? Is there any other border in the world that uses the quota system? I see no reason for a quota. If you have an efficient, computerized inspection system, you shouldn’t need a quota.
#3 Install signs in different languages. This border should be welcoming to visitors from around the world. Of course, Arabic must be the primary language, but if tourists from other parts of the world are encouraged to visit, more signs in English, French, German, and Spanish should be installed. An INFORMATION booth with someone assigned the task of answering questions from weary travelers might be helpful.
#4 Expedite and consolidate the review and inspection process. Rather than going through two separate and very cumbersome processes in both directions, why don’t Egyptians take responsibility for inspecting the visitors who wish to enter Egypt, and Palestinians take responsibility for inspecting the visitors who wish to enter Gaza? Do you really care who is leaving each of your territories?
#5 Regulate and control the businesses at the border. There are swarms of men on both sides of the border who are trying to grab the attention of the travelers to exchange money, to sell coffee and tea, to offer rides to Gaza City or Cairo. They all seem to be operating independently and without any supervision, which is disturbing for the first-time international traveler. The authorities should herd all of the vendors together, ensure that they are legitimate operations, and instill some confidence in the travel industry. You could make some $$ by charging these vendors fees for working at the border.
#6 Don’t herd your visitors like cattle. Traveling from Gaza to Egypt, I was herded along with 50-75 others in Group #5 (and I suddenly realized the significance of my ticket number). This might be appropriate if we were outlaws who needed to be guarded, but we are visitors and travelers who wish to be treated with respect. If you have an efficient, computerized border crossing, there should be no need for herding people through the process.
#7 Set some goals. Under the best case scenario, it shouldn’t take anyone more than an hour or two to cross the border in either direction.
Israel controls the air and water as well as the other accesses to Gaza, but many Palestinians and foreigners alike thought that travel would be easier at Rafah after the Egyptian revolution in early 2011. Their hopes have been dashed.
Today the Rafah border crossing yells “Visitors Beware! We don’t want you!” in both directions. I hope officials on both sides can work together to improve travel conditions.