Bethlehem tourism reborn, but only for a few

By Catrina Stewart

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Photo / Thinkstock
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Photo / Thinkstock

Artists have made a tidy sum depicting an imaginary scene where a pregnant Mary and Joseph are puzzled by Israel's separation wall blocking their entry into Bethlehem.

The tourism industry, devastated by the Second Intifada that erupted a decade ago and the erection of the wall around the town, is now experiencing something of a rebirth. Pilgrims, drawn to the traditional birthplace of Jesus, are flocking to the town in droves.

"You won't find a room in Bethlehem this Christmas," says Dr Samir Hazboun, director of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce.

"It's now better than it was in 1999."

Bethlehem's recovery is nothing short of remarkable. Although the town lies just three miles from Jerusalem, the journey is logistically complicated. The eight-metre-high wall, which Israel erected in 2003 citing its security needs, has severed the town both physically and psychologically from Jerusalem.

Tourists must navigate an Israeli checkpoint, often involving a wait of 90 minutes, to move between the two towns, and the wall reinforces the impression that Bethlehem, a scene of fierce fighting during the intifada, is still not entirely safe.

Tourism is at its highest level since the millennium celebrations in 2000, the start of the intifada and Bethlehem's decline. Visitor numbers are up 60 per cent from last year to 1.45 million, and 90,000 tourists are expected over Christmas alone.

Until recently, most people would make a fleeting day trip to Bethlehem, spending most of their cash in Israel, but many are now choosing to stay in the town's hotels. Overnight stays are up 45 per cent, and the Palestinian share of the tourism revenue to Israel stands at 10 per cent, more than double what it has been in previous years.

Palestinian officials share ambitious plans for the town, hoping to turn Star Street, the route that Mary and Joseph are said to have taken into Bethlehem, into a major pedestrian thoroughfare lined with boutique and souvenir shops.

"Palestine is a challenging tourism destination," says tourism minister Khouloud Daibes.

"We tell visitors that Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall, but if you cross it, you will have a unique experience."

Israel expects 3.5 million tourists this year, 2.4 million of them Christian. A large number of those still shun Bethlehem. Israel has advertised its efforts to ease restrictions over the Christmas period, putting on shuttle buses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to speed pilgrims to services at the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square. It has also opened its borders temporarily to a small number of Christians from Gaza.

But hoteliers argue the easing of restrictions are largely cosmetic and fail to address the bigger issue of permanent access for tourists.

"We don't want only the seven days of Christmas. We want it all year round," said Amir Jaber, director of sales at the Jacir Palace Intercontinental in Bethlehem.

"We're still struggling because of the Israeli side. The buses have to wait for a long time when they [Israel] should be trying to facilitate it."

Some agencies bringing groups from cruise ships that dock at Ashdod and Haifa are thinking of dropping Bethlehem from their itineraries altogether because of the unpredictable delays, Mr Jaber claimed.

Israel's civil administration declined to comment on border procedures, saying only that 2010 was a "record-breaking year" for tourism in Bethlehem, thanks in large part to Israel's confidence-building measures.

But not everybody is benefiting. At an iron gate that cuts off Palestinian access to Rachel's Tomb to protect the Jewish worshippers, only five out of the 60 or more shops that once stood here remain. The area is one of the most lawless in an otherwise safe town because the Palestinian police are prevented by Israel from operating here.

Just off Manger Square, souvenir vendors watch with frustration as the tourists streaming out of the Church of the Nativity head back to their buses for the drive back to Jerusalem.

Shop owners claim that tour guides prevent their charges from heading into the winding, narrow alleyways of the Old City, where most souvenir shops are situated, and instead guide them to large gift shops owned by a few rich families where they receive commission.

"So there's 1.5 million [visitors], but what do I make from them?" grumbles Ibrahim, a Palestinian in his 50s who is polishing an olive wood nativity scene.

"Who takes the money? A few, and the rest of us are suffering."

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