Musa Al-Shaer / AFP / Getty Images

Come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem: Palestinians seek tourism boom

Birthplace of Jesus remains an important pilgrimage site, but occupation makes it difficult for Palestinian hosts

BETHLEHEM — Clad in red and white Santa hats, a group of Indian migrant workers danced and cheered their way toward the Church of the Nativity. With drums in tow, they sang Christmas carols at Manger Square, within earshot of the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born some two millennia ago.

As onlookers clapped and a group of Nigerian pilgrims joined the procession, merchants emerged from their shops to check out the ruckus. The family taking pictures in front of the Christmas tree may have noticed a slight variance in the color scheme from the traditional European yuletide palette — the red, black, green and white baubles signifying the Palestinian flag are a reminder that Christmas in the birthplace of Jesus is a bittersweet affair, celebrated under Israeli occupation.

Twelve years ago, the square was the locus of a siege of one of Christianity's holiest sites as Israeli tanks and troops fought with Palestinian fighters as they emerged from taking shelter in the church. That battle, which left the site damaged and resulted in the deportation of the Palestinian fighters, came at the height of the Second Intifada uprising, when the Israeli military returned in force to many of the West Bank’s major cities and the resulting conflict and curfews kept tourists away from Bethlehem. The number of pilgrims dwindled, hotels closed and restaurants only operated sporadically.

A Palestinian sits in Manger Square before souvenir shops void of shoppers or tourists as he rests from trying to sell Santa Claus hats to pilgrims visiting the West Bank town of Bethlehem,
Jim Hollander / EPA

Asem Barakat, who owns a souvenir shop by Manger Square, said tourism, which had flourished soon after the Oslo Accords were signed by Israel and the Palestinians in 1993, took a nosedive seven years later.

“There is no political horizon here,” he said, referring to the effort to end the occupation through negotiations. “Yes, there is some semblance of stability compared to the Intifada days, and tourists come and go. But things were much more different before 2000.”

According to figures from the Palestinian tourism ministry, 100,000 visitors were expected in Bethlehem in December this year, approximately 15,000 on Christmas Eve alone. But, said officials, the sector has yet to fulfill its potential.

Tourists are often encouraged to stay in Jerusalem, some 4 miles away, rather than in Bethlehem, said Fadi Qattan, a Palestinian tourism expert. “Tourists coming to the Palestinian [territories] are herded on an Israeli bus with an Israeli guide, and will spend approximately an hour and fifteen minutes in Bethlehem, and go back to whichever part of Israel he or she came from,” Qattan said.

The tourists are taken to the Church of the Nativity, and given some time to buy souvenirs from shops close to Manger Square, a route that effectively bypasses the heart of the city and even important sites nearby like Star Street — the historical pilgrimage route along which Joseph and Mary entered Bethlehem. Despite its historical importance, that street is often deserted, and most of its storefronts closed.

“A tourist gets to Bethlehem to visit the Nativity and goes into bus and disappears,” said Vera Baboun, the city's mayor.  

Jerusalem and Bethlehem have long been intertwined, she said, but no more. Some 22 settlements and Israel’s separation wall, which cuts through Bethlehem and separates the two cities, have left the birthplace of Jesus isolated.

“This separation of the twinning between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is highly affecting the demography and the nature of practicing the faith,” Baboun said.

Approximately 82 percent of Bethlehem falls inside the territory designated Area C under the Oslo Accords, which means it remains under direct Israeli military and administrative control.  As a result, some sites of significance to pilgrims — such as Wadi Khreitoun, home to one of the oldest monasteries in the Holy Land, and Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found — cannot be administered by the Palestinian authorities.

Israel has developed walking trails across most of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. One of the most popular — the Israel trail — goes through Khreitoun and Herodion, a fortress dating back to King Herod's time, and leads back to Jerusalem. Income generated from tourists using this trail and visiting sites in Area C flows directly to Israel.

The Palestinian Authority, which has no airport or control over borders, is also deprived of potential revenue from Muslim and Arab would-be visitors who struggle to obtain Israeli visas to enter the territory.

“In a best-case scenario where we have sovereignty, control of borders, and those sites back to us, we're talking about [a revenue of] $1.8 billion [generated for Palestinians] yearly,” Qattan said.

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Officials say that in 2014, 4 million people visited Bethlehem, spending approximately $460 million in the local economy, but these visitors are not considered tourists. To be classified as such, a visitor must spend at least one night in Bethlehem.

The dilemma for Palestinian officials remains how to get tourists past the settlements, the separation wall, and the barriers — there are now 32 around Bethlehem, according to the city's municipality.

“When we talk about real development in the tourism sector we can't have a real one unless the occupation ends,” said Rula Ma'aya, the Palestinian minister of tourism. “That's why the voting in parliaments all over Europe for recognizing Palestine as a state is important for us; it gives us hope and it positively affects tourism.”

Figures show a nine percent increase in overnight stays in Bethlehem, especially by tourists from Russia, Poland and Italy. But Americans, who tend to be the biggest spenders, continue to stay in Jerusalem hotels, and overall revenue was down.

The expectations for 2014 had been high because of Pope Francis' visit to Bethlehem in May, but Israel’s summer offensive in Gaza and escalating tensions in the West Bank saw a further downturn in tourism. Still, said Ma'aya, “We hope that [the Pope's] visit will still reflect on tourists next year, and more will follow in his footsteps.”

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