Blue Beach Resort, a Gaza attraction despite siege, restrictions
Gaza City - The new Blue Beach Resort in the northern Gaza Strip offers a respite to residents accustomed to summer holidays in beachfront retreats in Egypt or Turkey.
Foreigners, however, may need to have a local with them to explain the ins-and-outs at Blue Beach, an attraction for Gaza’s elite and the foreign non-governmental organisation community alike.
When women swim in the pool, men are not allowed because co-ed sport is banned by Gaza’s Hamas rulers. Usually, women swim in headscarf, T-shirts and knee-length shorts and not in one- or two-piece suits.
No alcohol is served on the premises, just juices such as freshly squeezed lemon juice with crushed mint. Hamas bans alcohol, however, because of local smugglers and foreigners, wine, beer and hard spirits find their way to Gaza and Blue Beach.
There is no bar, no nightclub, no discotheque and no belly dancers at Blue Beach. There is a lone male singer or an all-male band performing on specific days to an audience smoking water pipes or puffing on cigarettes, with caffeine intake from tea and coffee.
Smoking is not banned, although Hamas advocates its prohibition, deeming it harmful to public health.
In each room, there is a prayer carpet and a copy of the Quran. The hotel’s television sets, however, receive a variety of satellite stations showing Western movies, pop hits and video clips and sports with mixed sexes.
“No matter what, it’s a great place for family,” said Mahmoud Badder, 55, a clothing store owner, who said he often visits Blue Beach with his wife and four children.
Previously, the family’s summer vacation was to Egypt or Turkey until Gaza came under Israeli siege in 2007 to punish Hamas for violently taking over the area from the Palestinian Authority.
“The trip to Egypt or to Turkey in the past used to cost me around $2,000 for one week but this time we spent three nights at the Blue Beach and I just paid $500 for everything,” Badder said.
“Here, I have my car and within 15 minutes, we can be at home.”
Gaza residents are generally conservative Muslims.
Many come from tribal patriarchal backgrounds where men have the only say in family matters, while women have specific duties, such as cleaning, cooking and raising children.
They often reject Hamas’s militant approach and its policies. That includes imposing the head-to-toe covering, which has made its way into Gaza’s schools, universities and courtrooms, but not into private places such as hotels and resorts.
Attractions such as the Blue Beach are important for Gaza’s population of 1.8 million. Three Israeli wars, the last of which was in July 2014, devastated the area’s infrastructure and left many people homeless.
Owners of Blue Beach said Hamas had told them it had “no problem” having the resort in the area as long as “it would boost the deteriorating economy” but insisted that “conservative traditions and Islamic rules must be observed”.
The resort was built on 15,000 square metres of land and includes a hotel, 152 chalets, recreation facilities, a children’s amusement park, a bowling lounge, arcades shop and two swimming pools, all surrounded by greenery and palm trees. Coffee shops and restaurants are scattered along the way from the main hotel building to the swimming pools.
Nabeel al-Sarraf, chairman of the Palestinian Real Estate Investment Company, which runs the resort, said Gaza’s acute power shortages were regular problems.
“We’re working in the resort with half of our abilities,” Sarraf said, adding that more staff members were being trained to take up positions soon because “the numbers of local tourists are increasing”.
For Hamas and other Gaza residents, the resort is not only an outing. “It props up the economy through encouraging domestic tourism,” Gaza economist Moeen Rajab said.
“Local investment projects in tourism are good for boosting the deteriorated economy,” Rajab said. He explained that such projects are encouraging “because they cover up for the negative fallouts of the Israeli blockade”.
Rezeq al-Hello, director-general of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said Hamas “doesn’t obstruct or block the establishment of resorts all over the coastal enclave”.
“We ease the process of building and licencing these resorts to help jump-start Gaza’s poor economy,” he said.
Room prices are mostly affordable for Gaza’ better off, who make up about 3% of the population. The cost per person ranges $100-$160 per night, depending on whether the room has a sea or city view.