Written by Arieh O’Sullivan
As tourism swells, no room in any inns despite Israeli restrictions
Amid unseasonably sunny December days in Bethlehem, it appears history is about to repeat itself. During the week of Christmas all the city’s hotels are fully booked for the first time in decades, which will leave some of the estimated 90,000 expected visitors without any room at the inn.
Merchants in shops along its fabled cobblestone streets leading to Manger Square were busy preparing souvenirs for the flood of pilgrims converging on this West Bank town over the next month as Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenians celebrate the birth of their savior Jesus Christ.
“We are lucky. We have three times Christmas,” said Deputy Mayor George Saade, referring to Catholic date of December 25, Greek Orthodox’s January 7 and Armenian’s January 19. “God gave this great gift to the city of Bethlehem that his son, our Lord Jesus Christ, was born here.”
While Joseph and a very pregnant Mary were forced to seek shelter in a manger because there were no rooms in Bethlehem inns 2,000 years ago, this year’s high occupancy rate was seen as a good sign that business is back after security fears had kept many tourists and pilgrims away for the past decade.
Samir Hazboun, head of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, said that the week of Christmas was “fully booked” for the little town of Bethlehem’s 31 hotels.
“You will not find a room in Bethlehem for this period,” Hazboun said.
Speaking next to two hotels under construction, Hazboun said the number of hotels in Bethlehem in 1995 was six. Today there are 31, boasting 2,750 rooms, with another five more hotels planned.
The Palestinian Authority’s Tourism Ministry said it expects over two million tourists and pilgrims to have visited by West Bank by the end of 2010.
“This is an increase of almost 40% compared with last year,” said Minister of Tourism Kholoud Daibes.
According to Daibes, tourists to the PA aren’t just coming in greater numbers but dropping more of their money along the way. In 2007, just 5% of revenues spent by tourists in their visit to the Holy Land were spent in Palestinian areas and the rest in Israel.
“Today we can talk about around 10% of the pie. This is our share of the revenues spent in tourism activity. Ninety percent is still spent on the Israeli side,” she said at a meeting with journalists visiting Bethlehem.
Daibes also said overnight stays went from about 1 million in 2009 to 1.4 million this year. Many of the new tourists were coming from Russia, Eastern Europe and the Far East and India.
Without an international airport of their own, tourists and pilgrims visiting Bethlehem must go through Israel, which has marked a record tourism year of its own.
The Israeli Tourism Ministry estimates some 3.45 million tourists will have visited the country by the end of 2010, 14% more than the previous record year of 2008. It said that 2.4 million of these were Christian tourists, of whom about half are pilgrims.
“The number of tourists to Israel is increasing,” Daibes said. “Because of the relative relief in the political situation many tourists and pilgrims who had hesitated feel more encouraged to come and visit the Holy Land.”
The town of Christ’s birth is trying to capitalize on the Christmas spirit by staging events in the coming weeks. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to light the Christmas tree in Manger Square Wednesday night. International troupes will perform in the days leading up to Christmas, culminating with the traditional Catholic midnight mass. The post office will remain open for 24 hours to allow tourists attending midnight mass to send letters and postcards marked with Christmas Eve from Bethlehem.
With the aid of U.S.-trained Palestinian forces, security in Bethlehem in particular has been notably robust. Once a Christian town, today Muslims make up over two-thirds of the residents and mosques far outnumber churches.
Deputy Mayor Saade said Bethlehem depends on tourism for its livelihood. Visits to the biblical town slowed to a trickle during most of this decade after Israel-Palestinian conflict erupted in 2000. Unemployment reached some 70%, Saade said.
“But today Bethlehem is secure. We are surrounded by a wall but Bethlehem is open for everybody to visit,” Saade said.
Travel to Bethlehem requires visitors to pass through a six-meter (20-foot) high concrete wall, part of a 750-kilometer security barrier Israel erected to keep out suicide bombers. The Israeli government has announced that it would be easing access to and from Bethlehem during the month-long Christmas celebrations.
Israel’s Tourism Ministry said it would be operating shuttle busses free of charge from Jerusalem to Bethlehem for 24 hours from Christmas Eve.
With an expected 90,000 tourists expected from land via Jordan and Egypt and via air at the Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, extra personnel have been posted to be on hand “to ensure a sped and comfortable passage.”
“The fact that we are witnessing an increase in numbers or that we are developing tourism is not that we are coping with the occupation,” Daibes said. “We are telling our visitors, pilgrims, that Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall but if you cross the wall there is a very unique experience awaiting any visitor or pilgrim coming to our side.”