Hackathon seeks to boost tourism in Bethlehem

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Nearly 100 people gathered for Palestine’s first tourism industry-led hackathon in Bethlehem on September 22. The three day event drew students from Bethlehem University and Palestine Ahliya University with backgrounds in hotel management, business and IT.

The hackathon was organized by the Bethlehem Business Incubator (BBI), part of a US government funded project titled Building Entrepreneurship Excellence And Developing Economic Enterprises (BEEADEE).

As a result of a wall built by Israel in the early 2000s, commonly known as the apartheid wall,  Bethlehem city has been severely cut off from neighboring cities like Jerusalem for over a decade. The separation intensified the restriction of movement and greatly hindered the domestic tourism industry.

Today, the tourism sector in Palestine, specifically in Bethlehem, a city that draws tourists from all over the world each year to visit the birthplace of Jesus, typically has tourists visiting for only a few hours.

“This [tourism] sector in Palestine suffers from obstacles related to the occupation, as well as the lack of technology and creativity. With the Bethlehem hackathon, we want to create new ideas and ventures,” said Salah Amleh, project country director BEEADEE.

Twelve teams were tasked to brainstorm with ideas to address Palestine’s challenging tourism industry, perform market research to validate their ideas, and find viable solutions.

The majority of participants were women and came up with ideas that could be put into practice immediately.

The tourism industry is of significant importance to Palestinians as it asserts their history, identity, and could potentially revitalize a choked economy. Several local entrepreneurs have worked to fill the need, including Ramallah-based Yamsafer, that serves intra-regional travelers in MENA with its popular hotel-booking site and cardless booking feature, an answer to solving the region’s low credit card penetration rates. The platform secured $3.5 million in a Series B funding round in 2015 led by Global Founders Capital (GFC), along with existing investor Sadara Ventures and other undisclosed investors.

Hackathon participants pose for a group selfie. (Image via Salah Amleh)

Batuta, also Ramallah-based, is a travel research site targeting Arabic speakers. Last year, the website secured a $2.5 million Series A investment led by Siraj Palestine Fund I.

“Validation was already there because people were telling us the problems they currently face on a daily basis. The solutions were to integrate technology, with low and high tech solutions. I saw a lot of potential during the hackathon; any of the ideas are capable of being applied and if applied correctly they will solve real problems in the tourism sector in Palestine,” said hackathon moderator, Maher Saleh.

At the end of the third day, groups presented their ideas to a panel of judges. In first place was Events Share, that helps put together events to connect tourists with tourism agencies in Palestine using an automated process that would be connected with Facebook’s API.

“This was a great event for Bethlehem because it brings us access to opportunities, which otherwise we wouldn’t have access to, as most of the time such events take place in Ramallah,” said Alex Mansour, an alumni of Bethlehem University and a member of the winning team.   

In second place was a platform titled Internal Tourism, connecting locals looking for tourist activities. Pal-Food, a service inviting tourists to cook with local families instead of going to a restaurant, came in third.

BBI plans to follow up closely with the teams and will continue to provide participants with training, workshops and mentoring with the potential to compete for BBI funding in the future.

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