Profits beckon in the Holy Land: Palestinians left trailing as Israeli peace talks pave the way for tourist barons' bonanza

A GIANT penguin haunts a bare and desolate expanse of the Arava Desert in southern Israel. Standing astride an artificial sea, his mocking beak looms above the ancient rock formations of Timna Valley, and points towards the deep red mountains of Jordan, and the city of Petra, just 60 miles away.

As the sun sets on the Nabataean city, the penguin is illuminated by a thousand flashing lights, thrown out by a ring of casinos, luxury hotels and Disney World amusements, all carved out of the virgin desert that Moses once crossed.

The giant penguin is still on the developers' drawing board, but tomorrow he may start to spring to life with the opening of yet another chapter in the history of Middle East peace-making. Just north of Eilat, on the border between Jordan and Israel, leaders from both countries will meet this week to start drawing up a peace treaty. Top of the agenda is regional development, with tourism seen as the biggest money-spinner.

The decisions at this meeting could well breathe life into this preposterous beast, along with a dollars 500m Holy Land 'Sun City', proposed by the South African resort builder, Sol Kerzner, a Red Sea riviera, an international airport at Eilat, a network of super-highways and much more besides.

While the diplomats tie up their treaties, the politicians and businessmen have already drawn up plans for the future. The prospect of open borders between Jordan, Israel, Egypt and their neighbours has focused minds on a product called the Holy Land. Unmarketed and frozen in time by years of conflict, the product is now ripe for development of every kind.

A victory of the 'Temporal over the spiritual - a holy Disneyland', warn religious leaders. But tourism ministries in the region are ready to go, with Israel leading the way. As Egypt is off the map for many tourists, after killings by Islamic militants, the Holy Land offers a safe alternative, say officials.

The fundamentalists cannot extend their actions here, the money men say confidently. On the contrary, Islamic militancy will be killed off by the new economic boom that tourism will help bring to the region. Perhaps a million Muslim pilgrims will pass through the Holy Land in the year 2000.

'We will change the image of the region from one of violence to one of co-operation,' says Mordechai Benari, of the Israeli Tourism Ministry. Last year just over 1.6 million tourists visited Israel. The ministry believes the number will rise to 4 million by 2000 when the region has been opened up. 'We know the demand for the product is there,' said Mr Benari.

Palestinians and Jordanians, want their share of the takings. But knowing that Israel and its business backers are ahead of the game, they are nervous about a takeover.

Elias Friej, Mayor of Bethlehem and Tourism Minister in the new Palestine national authority, stared bleakly across the grubby expanse of Nativity Square last week. Tourism should be the Palestinians' 'basket of bread', he said.

But Mr Friej knows that the Israelis are already snatching the bread basket from under his nose, and the Palestinian leadership is doing little to stop it. During 27 years of occupation and six years of Palestinian intifada, the Palestinian tourism industry has been all but destroyed. Arab building licences have been refused. Dingy Palestinian hotels have hardly had a new lick of paint since 1967. It is Israeli tour guides who bring most Christian pilgrims to Bethlehem, and return them to hotels inside Israel.

Now, unbeknown to the new Palestinian authority, the Israeli Tourism Ministry is planning to build five new hotels on land in Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians designate as their future capital. And a big development project is planned by the Israeli property company, Africa Israel, on the northern shores of the Dead Sea, five kilometres from the potential tourist haven of Jericho. The land is in the West Bank, and should shortly fall under Palestinian control. But Israel believes that Palestinians and Jordanians will have no choice but to co-operate.

Jordan, meanwhile, also has its fears. As soon as borders are opened hundreds of thousands of Israelis are expected to fulfil their long-held dream by visiting Petra to carve their names in the ancient rock.

'I know the Jordanians are frightened of the traffic jam of Israelis, but they need not fear a takeover,' said Mr Benari. Even Israeli archaeologists warn of environmental disaster.

'The only thing to do is to get to Petra before the Israelis get there . . . before it becomes covered all over with graffiti,' says Uri Avner of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, who is monitoring the potential ecological disaster of a tourist boom in the southern Negev.

For the businessmen, however, developing the Holy Land product holds no fear. Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho are traditional tourist magnets, but they are looking for new ways to pull crowds to the region.

In future, the gateway to the Holy Land will be Eilat. At the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba at the nexus between Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Eilat is earmarked as a capital of a Red Sea riviera. By 2000 the tourist brochure may read like this: 'Two weeks on the Red Sea riviera including: day trips to sites of Jerusalem and Petra with stopover at Dead Sea biblical theme park. Weekend at Sun City with camel safari through Nabataean trail.'

The tourists will jet into Eilat's new international airport, a joint Jordanian-Israeli venture, to be built in the Aravar Valley. From there, coaches would transport them to luxury hotels at the new Eilat-Aqaba complex, including 600 floating villas with a port and marina. All of them may stay at one of numerous Red Sea resorts planned for the 400-kilometre coastline down the Sinai.

Mr Kerzner's Sun City complex, in the Timna Valley, site of ancient copper mines 28 kilometres north of Eilat, involves a complex of casinos and hotels. The project awaits an Israeli government decision to legalise gambling. A network of pan-Holy Land highways will zip the tourist to Petra in 40 minutes, and on perhaps to the Lawrence of Arabia son et lumiere at Wadi Rum.

The tour package may sound like fantasy today. The barbed wire is still piled up between Eilat and the Jordanian port of Aqaba six kilometres away. But after King Hussein of Jordan meets Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, on 25 July, such relics of war may fast come down.

Already the bulldozers are hard at work in Eilat and the product is taking shape. A regiment of new hotels is shaping up against the border: Queen of Sheba, Herod's Hotel, King Solomon's Palace, to name but three. It may not be long before a giant penguin is hoisted above the Holy Land.

(Photograph omitted)

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