Occupied West Bank – Rows of Israeli flags mark the entrance to the Ahava Visitor Center a few hundred metres from the northwestern banks of the Dead Sea.
Inside, the cosmetics manufacturer sells “With Love from Israel” skincare gift sets to the American, Russian and Korean tourist groups that arrive in buses every 10 minutes or so.
For the unsuspecting visitor, it is not easy to tell that one is no longer within the internationally recognised borders of Israel, but in the occupied West Bank, in an Israeli settlement, illegal under international law.
The same goes for nearby Qumran, a popular tourist attraction where a Bedouin shepherd once found the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.
Notwithstanding it being situated in the West Bank, Israel now controls the site, which also has an entry marked by rows of Israeli flags and a sizeable gift shop filled with “I love Israel” souvenirs.
“I believe we are in Israel,” said Jimmy Small, a tourist from New York, when asked about his current location.
Most other tourists at a tour bus car park in Qumran gave the same response.
The confusion is not that surprising, given the major travel companies’ brochures and websites.
An investigation by Al Jazeera of travel catalogues and itineraries found that 20 of the most popular travel agencies and booking sites are taking tourists shopping, dining or for an overnight stay in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.
None of the companies informs potential consumers that they will be visiting an illegal settlement, and only six mention or imply that one will be outside Israeli territory.
Thomas Cook, Collette and On the Go Tours, for example, make stops at the Ahava Visitor Center without telling tourists they are leaving Israel.
Saga Holidays describes a stopover and wine tasting in the Golan Heights settlement Katzrin as a visit to “the new Israeli town of Katzrin”.
Booking.com offers rooms in “The Garden Suite Apartment”, which the website says is located in “Jerusalem (Israel)”, but the accommodation is situated in the Gilo settlement in the occupied West Bank.
The tourists ought to have
In another case, the large travel agency GoEco, which describes itself as “a leading eco-tourism company” with a selection of “ethical volunteer projects abroad”, offers a two-to-eight week volunteer programme in the “Mountain Eco Lodge” in what is supposedly Israel.
According to GoEco, the lodge “sets an example of modern sustainable living” on “one of the highest peaks in Israel” in Nimrod, “a small Israeli town in the Golan Heights”.
It is not mentioned that Nimrod is an Israeli settlement, illegal under international law.
This information may seem even more crucial when considering that one of the main activities as a volunteer is construction work – “the rewarding experience of building structures from the ground up” – which means that the participants will directly contribute to the settlement’s construction.
According to John Dugard, professor of international law and former UN special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, the travel agencies’ customers are unknowingly “aiding and abetting” the crime of establishing illegal settlements.
“In theory, this exposes tourists to prosecution for having purchased illegal goods,” said Dugard, who added that although holidaymakers are not going to be prosecuted before the International Criminal Court for such an offence, travel agencies should be warning tourists that they are about to commit a crime.
“The tourists ought to have a cause of action against the tour companies and claim compensation for having been fraudulently misled and exposed to criminal activity,” Dugard said.
‘An effective way to reproduce the official Israeli narrative’
Over the past years, the Israeli government has invested heavily in building hotels and tourism development in West Bank settlements, and according to settler spokespersons, recent years have seen settlement tourism grow.
Earlier this year, a leaked EU Heads of Mission report warned that “tourist settlements” in occupied East Jerusalem were being used “as a political tool to modify the historical narrative and to support, legitimise and expand settlements”.
The conclusions are backed by Rami Khalil Isaac, a Palestinian senior lecturer at the Academy for Tourism at the Dutch NHTV Breda University, who has been studying tourism in the occupied Palestinian territories.
“Tourism is becoming an effective way to reproduce the official Israeli narrative. Many of these tours to settlements in the Golan Heights or the West Bank eventually serve to normalise these places being considered parts of Israel,” Isaac said.
Palestinians, including Palestinian tour guides, are generally not allowed to access the tourist attractions that are developed as part of settlement projects. Concurrently, Israeli authorities and settler organisations are taking control of a growing amount of historical, archaeological and religious sites on occupied Palestinian land.
While Israeli tour operators can continue their excursions to the sites on occupied territory, Palestinian tour guides are mostly restricted from crossing from the West Bank into Jerusalem or Israel.
According to Brian Reeves of the Israeli NGO Peace Now, the locations where settler organisations establish tourist sites come to work as a “land grab”.
“Touristic settlements also attract Israeli domestic tourism, which works to cement in every day Israelis’ minds a need to forever hold on to the territory,” he said.
Speaking in the shade of his souvenir stand in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, local shop-owner Assem Barakat emphasised that Israel is in control of all borders adjacent to the Palestinian territories.
Tourists are therefore most often travelling with companies operating from Israel – also when visiting West Bank locations such as Bethlehem.
“Many don’t even know that they are not in Israel when coming here. And others have been told to stay alert – that it can be dangerous to go here,” he said.
But by pretending that they are not visiting Palestine, the travel agencies are only repeating that same notion of the territory - that it is something to be scared of.
The examination of travel brochures also shows that for 20 companies, including TUI and Trafalgar Travel, locations in occupied Palestinian territories are central to marketing campaigns, while depicting them as being part of Israel.
For instance, the main photo on TUI’s website is from occupied East Jerusalem, while the headline about a round trip there is “Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Israel”, even though the international community does not recognise Israel’s annexation of occupied East Jerusalem, while Bethlehem is administered by the Palestinian Authority.
According to Isaac, the lecturer at the NHTV Breda University, tourist agencies may be reluctant to mention that they will be visiting Palestinian territories because the areas are known for conflict.
“But by pretending that they are not visiting Palestine, the travel agencies are only repeating that same notion of the territory – that it is something to be scared of,” he said.
Bookings website Airbnb has been criticised before for listing properties in settlements on occupied Palestinian land as being inside the state of Israel.
In 2010 and 2015, the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned further publication of Israeli tourist campaigns which portrayed East Jerusalem as part of Israel.
The 2015 verdict was later changed in a second investigation, as the watchdog group decided that the advert was not likely to mislead consumers “into taking a transactional decision that they would otherwise not have taken”.
The ASA told Al Jazeera that it cannot comment on cases that have not been through its complaints and investigations process.
After being contacted by Al Jazeera, On The Go Tours said it would remove the visit to the Ahava Visitor Centre from its Israel trip.
Topdeck, Thomas Cook and Collette said they would correct their websites to ensure Palestinian Territories are accurately identified as part of the itinerary.
“We’re sorry that this element of the tour wasn’t previously made clear,” a Thomas Cook spokesman said.
Thomas Cook, via its tour provider Collette, is however not altering its itinerary and will keep visiting the Ahava Visitor Center.
Collette did not wish to comment on whether it would start informing guests that they would be visiting a settlement on their tours.
Riviera Travel admitted that its website did not provide the reader with the representation that it had originally intended, and said that it would commit to reviewing it.
Since being contacted by Al Jazeera, GoEco has removed The Mountain Eco Lodge from its website. In an email, its co-director said that it no longer works with the lodge.
In an email, Tripadvisor spokesman Brian Hoyt did not touch upon the company’s listings in settlements and said that it seeks “to provide geographical information in how we describe a property or landmark’s location that is both practical and consistent with other sources that travellers might use visiting those areas”.
TUI, Mercury Holidays, Explore Travel, TourRadar and the Israeli Government Tourist Office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Despite several attempts, Al Jazeera also did not receive a response from: Virgin Vacations; Artisans of Leisure; Travel55, Trafalgar; Tours4fun; Gate1; Cosmos; Mayflower Cruises and Tours; Overseas Adventure Travels; Expedia; Booking.com; Travelocity, Trivago; Orbitz, Abercrombie & Kent; Titan Travel; Globus Journeys; Key Tours and Saga Holidays.
Travel agencies that visited Israeli settlements without informing customers: Thomas Cook, Virgin Vacations, Saga Holidays, Artisans of Leisure, Gate 1, Collette Tours, Overseas Adventure Travels, Travel 55, Explore Travel, On the Go Tours, GoEco, Key Tours, Tours4fun.
Booking sites that offered accommodation without informing customers that they will be staying in settlements: Expedia, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Travelocity, Trivago, Orbitz, TourRadar.
Travel agencies that depicted occupied territories as Israel: Abercrombie & Kent, Thomas Cook, Virgin Vacations, Saga Holidays, Artisans of Leisure, TUI, Globus Journeys, Gate 1, Topdeck, Mercury Holidays, Riviera Travel, Titan Travel, Travel 55, Collette Tours, Trafalgar Travel, Cosmos, Key Tours, Mayflower Cruises and Tours, Overseas Adventure Travels, Tours4fun.