Travel: Profits of the promised land

In Jericho the walls are going up, not down, as tourists are lured to casinos in the desert, writes Alison Buckholtz

The Judaean Desert has always been known as a place of prophecy. Something about the swirling sand, the relentless sun, the endless sky - and maybe the lack of water - urges otherwise ordinary folk to start soothsaying. In the Bible, the prophecies-from-the-desert usually came true. These days, another kind of prophet is predicting the future of Jericho, a desert town in the Palestinian Authority that is gambling on its future. Literally.

Jericho's $50m (pounds 31m) prophet is Casinos Austria, a well-known European chain of gambling houses that opened its first branch in the Holy Land last autumn. Gambling is illegal in Israel, but hundreds of thousands of Israelis flock to casinos in Greece, Turkey and Eastern Europe every year. And European and American tourists in Jerusalem are continually in search of more to do at night.

Casinos Austria knew it had a ready-made audience for gaming, but it faced more barriers than usual once it decided to build on Palestinian territory. For starters, the location had to be safe, with little chance of political violence coming near. It had to be sensitive to the local observant Muslim population, which assiduously guards against religious violations, including gambling. It had to be aware of Jewish festivals, especially the High Holiday period in September/October, when nearly all Israeli contractors and businesses shut down. It had to be Western enough to remain accessible to the American convention and tourism market and Eastern enough to appeal to the Arabs of the Gulf, whom it hopes to cultivate. And it had to have access to an eager, plentiful workforce that could get by in English, the casino's official language.

To make matters even more complicated, Casinos Austria needed a site with abundant, cheap land - suitable for a five-star, 220-room hotel, an 18-hole golf course, a tennis court, pool, shopping arcade and health- club, and at least two gourmet restaurants. It's all part of Casinos Austria's five-year plan to construct the Palestinian Authority's first convention centre and Western-style resort.

Impossible? This region has seen a few miracles. And the unlikely success of the Oasis Casino, which operates across the street from a run-down Palestinian refugee camp, may help rejuvenate the rest of Jericho. Now, all signs show that this one-time winter resort town for the local elite is preparing to recapture its former glory.

Jericho saw its share of battles on the road to glory. The biblical Joshua captured Jericho for the Israelites, and it was among their first homesteads after the 40-year exodus from Egypt. During this century the region has been under Ottoman, British and Jordanian control, and Israel captured Jericho during the 1967 war. But it was the first town, along with the Gaza Strip, that Israel handed over to the Palestinian Authority government in 1995. Since then, local and international businesses have been working on a way to make sure the tourists stay.

Unlike Hebron, Jericho was never completely abandoned by tourists. Even when it was at its most destitute, the adventurous, the religious and the merely curious explored the town where the walls came tumbling down. It has long been the second leading area for Palestinian tourism, after Jerusalem's Old City. But few tourists ever spent the night in Jericho.

The Oasis Casino and its near neighbour, the Jericho Resort Village, along with other new facilities, are trying to change that by reconfiguring one of the most popular tourist corridors in the world: that linking Masada, the Dead Sea, the Jericho area sites and Jerusalem.

The Oasis Casino hasn't turned Jericho into Monaco or Vegas, but it has helped put the place back on the map. It is the largest private employer in the Palestinian Authority, with 800 Palestinian employees and 285 expats from 29 countries. When the casino is in action, as it is 24 hours a day, seven days a week (closed only on Yom Kippur), every single one of those employees has a job to do. Casino capacity is 2,000, and on a typical Friday at midnight it is full. People are packing the floor, smoking, betting, jostling through the throng and kibitzing with friends. Thirty- five gaming tables and 220 slot machines keep the crowds busy.

Only guests with a foreign passport are allowed into the Oasis, and 94 per cent of its visitors are Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, according to Alex Tucek, the general manager. But recent initiatives offering all- expenses-paid day trips from hotels in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the north of Israel have brought in an increasing number of Europeans and tourists from other countries. In many cases, they would have no other impetus to cross the border if not to give their dollars to Palestinian croupiers, who then hand them on to European bosses.

But not everyone thinks the Oasis Casino is worth betting on. Suha Arafat, Yasser Arafat's wife, has called it a "disgrace", and tales of alleged corruption are impossible to sidestep: some Palestinian Authority officials responsible for pushing through permits and tax benefits for the casino are said to be hoping for a reward if it is successful.

For everyone involved, success is critical. The question is whether tourists will choose to make Jericho home base in the Holy Land. "If we build it, they will come" seems to be the builder's premise. It's a field-of-dreams mentality, and they share it with businessmen on construction sites all over the Authority. It may just work, especially with 2000 approaching. The Vatican has predicted that as many as 6 million pilgrims may visit the Holy Land to celebrate Christ's birth next year. Although the Israeli ministry of tourism expects half that number, few believe that the existing hotels can house them all.

But the millennium isn't the only force behind Jericho's newfound focus on tourism. Today's quest for peace in the region is fuelling Jericho's building boom, said Bajis Ismail, director general of the Palestinian Authority's ministry of tourism and antiquities. "Tourism can promote peace," said Ismail. "It allows people to meet and talk who would never otherwise know each other."

There's no escaping politics in this part of the world, even for the most experienced businessmen. "For me, this is personal," said Zuhayr Amad, chairman of the board of the new Jericho Resort Village. "I have this dream that political compromise on both sides will come. It might drag on, but it will come. In the meantime, we are here, doing something good for the country."

JERICHO

GETTING THERE

El Al (tel: 0171-957 4100) offers return fares to Tel Aviv from pounds 270. Share taxis run from Jerusalem to Jericho. Double rooms at the Jericho Resort Village (tel: 00 972 2 232 1255) cost from $100 (pounds 62). Day trips from Jerusalem to the Oasis Casino are widely available and cost 100 shekels ($30-$35), which includes a $25 casino voucher.

WHAT TO DO

Oasis Casino (tel: 00 972 2 231 1111). The Oasis Resort will open in December.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Israel Handbook (Footprint, pounds 12.99) is a useful reference book.

The Palestinian Authority Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (tel: 00 972 2 992 1229).

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