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Banksy’s Bethlehem hotel is an example of how tourism can be political

Inside Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem. Ayman Abuzuluf (supplied)

We have all been tourists, and therefore think we know what tourism is. In the modern world, tourism is viewed as an important industry, providing jobs and economic growth. At the same time, tourism and tourists are sometimes looked down on, seen as awkward and ignorant.

Largely forgotten is an earlier era in which tourism was viewed as a tool of politics and a subject of political analysis.

A good example of the latter was Linda Richter’s book, The Politics of Tourism in Asia. Richter demonstrated how tourism might serve political ends through several Asian case studies.

However, since the onset of the market era, tourism has been promoted as an “industry” of considerable economic importance to national governments. This has overshadowed the capacities of tourism to foster political engagement, political advocacy, and activism.

Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel

Enter celebrated graffiti artist Banksy and his opening in March 2017 of the “Walled Off Hotel” in Bethlehem.

The hotel is situated across the street from the Separation Wall. Israel has constructed this wall to separate itself from its occupied Palestinian territories. Marketed as “the hotel with the worst view in the world”, Banksy’s hotel is reviving the profile of tourism as a political tool.

Banksy has shown solidarity with Palestine and Palestinians before. But the opening of a hotel that international visitors, Israelis and Palestinians can visit is a novel approach that has sparked both interest and controversy.

The controversy has emerged as pundits debate whether it is a legitimate tool for intervention in the Palestine-Israel conflict, or an exercise in elite privilege.

One analysis refers to the concept of “occu-tourism” to describe the voyeurism that some tourists engage in when their visits do little to overturn the injustice in Palestine or the wider global context.

Rather than viewing the Walled Off as an art installation offering political commentary, it is more useful to see it as a working hotel with a capacity for sparking political awareness.

Banksy has funded this nine-room hotel to operate for at least 2017, and possibly longer. The Walled Off is run by hotel staff who will work at the hotel while it is kept open; they are not performers.

Occupying a room under occupation

Placing an operating hotel on a site where guests can feel the oppression of the wall and experience the surveillance of an Israeli watchtower works to embed visitors in the occupation.

While there are luxury rooms (“the palatial suite is equipped with everything a corrupt head of state would need”), there is also a budget room fitted out with Israeli military bunks for US$30 a night. This affordable accommodation suggests an effort to engage more widely than with just the elite fans of Banksy’s art.

Visitors to the Walled Off will experience being walled off by walls, checkpoints and security checks. Such experiences should provoke empathy and insight.

The Walled Off experience contrasts with the standard Holy Land tours where international tourists may not realise their Bethlehem visit has transported them into occupied Palestinian territory (due to Israeli maps not identifying this territory as separate from Israel and half-day tour itineraries dominated by Israeli-owned companies.

Like his Dismaland installation in the UK in 2015, Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel encourages us to question our choices and our roles in an increasingly unequal and unjust world.

Are we to be voyeurs using our tourism and leisure opportunities for selfish ends? Or can we feel the experiences of others in places like the Walled Off and be moved to advocacy and action? Is the hotel a space of promising political engagement and can tourism change anything beyond the selfish hedonism of the escapism currently promoted?

Tourism: a promising tool of political change?

Those who organise and host tourism for political advocacy demonstrate commitment to its efficacy.

From Cuban solidarity tours, to tours to visit the Zapatista revolutionaries of Chiapas, to the accommodation of the Hotel Bauen (a hotel taken back by the workers in Buenos Aires), supporters flock to learn and engage.

More broadly, the American-based human rights organisation Global Exchange has offered human rights tours to sites around the world for advocacy for justice.

In Palestine, the Alternative Tourism Group has modelled “justice tourism” and helped tourists to learn from Palestinian (and Israeli) human rights advocates on the region’s issues.

Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel invites us to consider the value of tourism as a political tool. Palestinians want to be heard, and Banksy has used his celebrity platform to draw attention to the injustices of occupation.

Occupying a room at the Walled Off, a tourist can contemplate in a real way who is mobile and who is not, and how our choices are implicated in such circumstances.

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