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Bethlehem eyes tourist boom after dark decade
Published Sunday 22/12/2013 (updated) 23/12/2013 16:00
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A Palestinian child wearing a Santa Claus costume waves a national flag
as another holds a poster of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during
a weekly demonstration, Dec. 20, 2013, against Israel's separation barrier
(AFP/File Musa al-Shaer)
BETHLEHEM (AFP) -- After a decade of unrest, Bethlehem has seen a surge in visits to Christ's traditional birthplace, raising hopes of a tourism bonanza in the West Bank town despite Israel's separation barrier.

The Palestinian territories' top tourist destination is a victim of the barrier which cuts off the town from nearby Jerusalem, just 10 kilometers (six miles) away.

Israel began work on its sprawling barrier -- dubbed the "apartheid wall" by Palestinians -- in 2002 at the height of the second intifada, or uprising.

It defends the construction as a crucial protective measure, pointing to a drop in attacks inside Israel as proof of its success.

Palestinian tourism minister Rola Maayah sees the barrier as a key obstacle to encouraging visitors to the town.

"Bethlehem, one of our main tourist attractions is circled by 27 settlements. As a result, we are surrounded by high walls, fences and menacing checkpoints which put tourists off," Maayah said.

"We could develop tourism, attract people from all over the world, but it's not possible because of the Israeli occupation," she added.

The expansion of nearby Israeli settlements has deliberately helped to isolate the city, Palestinians say.

But since a UNESCO decision in June 2012 to grant world heritage status to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity -- hailed as a "historic" diplomatic victory by the Palestinians -- the town has been eyeing a tourist bonanza that could boost the local economy.

In Bethlehem, where nearly one quarter of its 25,000 residents are unemployed, two out of three households rely on tourism for their income.

Between 2011 and 2012, more than two million people visited the town. The record crowds brought much-needed revenues after a tough decade for tourism during the second intifada.

"There was a significant jump in tourism in Palestine in 2012 with an 18 percent rise in the number of visitors," Maayah said. A little over half of these were foreigners.

With 3,800 rooms, Bethlehem accounts for nearly half of the West Bank's hotel capacity. But the occupancy rate (65 to 70 percent) is unevenly distributed throughout the year.

"We are booked up in advance for Christian holidays, but there are lots of empty rooms the rest of the year," said the deputy head of the Bethlehem board of commerce, Fairouz Khoury.

To redress this imbalance, Vera Baboun, a Palestinian Catholic and Bethlehem's first female mayor since 2012, aims to encourage visitors to stay longer.

"Our visitors should know that Bethlehem is not just about the nativity," said Baboun.

The pilgrims -- who mostly come from Russia, the United States and Poland -- descend on the town by the coachload, queuing to see the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's oldest and holiest, leaving immediately afterwards.

Those who linger for more than a few hours are rare.

"This year our motto is 'Come home for Christmas,' which means: take the time to wander around the alleys of the Old City, talk to the residents, help them to live here," Baboun explained.

"Bethlehem is not a museum," she said.

Palestinian tourist guides have also complained they suffer because of the favorable treatment granted to their Israeli competitors.

Some 150 Israelis are authorized to work as guides in Bethlehem, compared with 42 Palestinians permitted to work in Israel and east Jerusalem, the chamber of commerce said.

"They take more than 80 percent of the market," complained Mohammed Awadallah, a Palestinian guide.

But Israeli authorities, who have long courted the lucrative market in catering to Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land, deny the accusations.

"We do everything we can so that Christians can visit the holy sites," Israeli Tourism Minister Uzi Landau said.
1 ) Brian Cohen / Israel
22/12/2013 09:51
What a piece of pure Palestinian propaganda. Shame on AFP! The Palestinian territories' top tourist destination is a victim of Palestinian violence and war crimes. Tourism was booming when the Palestinians launched intifada #2. The result of Palestinian war crimes (hundres of illegal suicide and car bombings that murdered over a thousand Israeli civilians) was the security barrier. Fact: The barrier went up and suicide attacks went to near zero. The Palestinians have only themselves to blame.

2 ) Maureen / Australia
22/12/2013 10:05
I would think the boom in Bethlehem's tourism and growth of hotel rooms on the West Bank, since the second intifada, is directly connected to the security the barrier has created for Muslims Christians and Jews.

3 ) Mel / USA
22/12/2013 13:45
Tourists must agree to wear 1-D specs only to see what Zionist-led,militarist-occupier Israel wants them to see,which doesn't include seeing OVER the wall to reality where Israel persecutes,tortures & punishes(by various levels of attrition)non-Jews! Zionism is a radical,fringe ideology,& should NOT be the custodian of,or spokesman for, Judeo-Christian history.While Zionism rules Israel &occupies pluralistic Palestine,then 'tourism'promotes the mindset that murdered Jesus. That's not Christmas!

4 ) shirley / australia
22/12/2013 16:35
if isreal wants security let it build awall around its self not in another country

5 ) Mels Mom / USA
22/12/2013 20:50
I do hope the Israelis ask the Pope,what has happened in Middle Eastern countries to Christians who can no longer continue to live in the Middle East: we all lose something immensely and irreplaceably precious when such a rich tradition – dating back 2,000 years – begins to disappear. It comprises a rich panoply of church life, including the Antiochian, Greek, Coptic, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox Churches, the Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean and Roman Catholic Churches.

6 ) myra / canada
22/12/2013 22:11
No matter what way you look at this. upside down inside out sideways.occupation is wrong.Israel should just build a wall around itself on its own land not the occupied part and the problem will be solved no one gets in.Palestine can then start a new life of freedom and peace.

7 ) Oliveland / Palestine
23/12/2013 04:57
1) Brian & 2) Maureen , stop with the rehash propaganda , the Aparthied land grabbing wall has many holes and thousands cross it daily illegally to work . A determined militant can suicide all he wants , the reason there is a fall in bombings are not related to the wall .

8 ) Marie / Palestine
23/12/2013 09:09
Oh Brian! I do not know whether to cry or laugh. You, and all the lot like you, have a very selective memory, remembering what suits you to justify what simply cannot and should not be justifiable, that is; that Israel, since before, during and after its inception has illegally, sistematically and inmorally dispossessed the Palestininans, the indigenous inhabitants of this land, of their right to live decently and humanely. Brian, register in a basic history 101 and get your facts straight...

9 ) ani ma'amin / UK
23/12/2013 23:49
@7 You do not really know what apartheid really was? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOZv3SIHOnM If you are unable to follow the lyrics allow me to recommend clicking on the sub-titles.
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