JERUSALEM (Reuters) - 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 recognises 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.
Beyond the economic benefits, Palestinians see such visits as cementing pan-Islamic sympathy for their goal of establishing a state with East Jerusalem - whose walled Old City is dominated by Al-Aqsa and the gilded Dome of the Rock - as their capital.
To that end, Palestinian religious authorities dispute an edict by Youssef Al-Qaradawi of Egypt, Sunni Islam’s top cleric, that non-Palestinian Muslims should not go to Jerusalem lest they be perceived as validating Israeli rule.
Even for Palestinians, access is not a given: Since their 2000 uprising against Israel, it has routinely restricted their travel to Jerusalem from the West Bank and imposed a tighter clampdown on the Gaza Strip, which is under Islamist Hamas rule.
Still, the senior Palestinian cleric, Grand Mufti Mohammad Hussein, sounded cautiously optimistic about foreign pilgrims.
“An increasing number of Muslims are visiting Al-Aqsa. Maybe the numbers are not as high as we had hoped, but we hope they will increase in days to come,” he told Reuters.
One British pilgrim, Adeel Sadiq, came to Al-Aqsa this week with 15 fellow Britons. “We want to show our support to the people here, that you are not alone and Al Masjed Al Aqsa (Al-Aqsa mosque) is for all Muslims,” he told a Palestinian reporter.
Israel has no counter-campaign aimed at attracting Muslim pilgrims. The Israeli Tourism Ministry said its marketing budget is allocated to countries in North and South America, Europe and the Far East and Russia, and does not include Turkey.
At the height of tensions in Jerusalem last month over Israeli controls on access to Al-Aqsa, Turkey’s Islamist-rooted president, Tayyip Erdogan, urged his compatriots to flock there in solidarity with the Palestinians.
The general manager of Turkish Airlines followed up with an ad offering $159 round-trip flights to “Jerusalem” - though in fact the planes land at Ben Gurion. Israel’s envoy to Ankara, Eitan Na‘eh, tweeted in turn: “We will always be glad to warmly welcome Turkish tourists to Israel and our capital Jerusalem.”
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ceyda Caglayan in Istanbul; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Giles Elgood