BETHLEHEM – Despite chocking Israeli restrictions, thousands of Christian tourists are preparing to spend Christmas in the birthplace of Jesus in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem.
“Bethlehem, one of our main tourist attractions is circled by 27 settlements,” Palestinian Tourism Minister Rola Maayah told Albawaba on Tuesday, December 24.
“As a result, we are surrounded by high walls, fences and menacing checkpoints which put tourists off,” she added.
“We could develop tourism, attract people from all over the world, but it’s not possible because of the Israeli occupation,” she added.
Christian pilgrims flock to Bethlehem every year in this period to celebrate Christmas at the historical Nativity Church, built on the site where Jesus is said to have been born in a stable.
But the Israeli restrictions are turning the journey of many tourists into the city into a nightmare.
Though it lies only three miles from Al-Quds (Occupied East Jerusalem), it takes hours from tourists to reach Bethlehem, thanks to the barrier Israel is building in the occupied West Bank.
Moreover, new settlements built on 18 square kilometres in the northern part of the city were cutting off Bethlehem from its historic twin, Occupied Jerusalem.
Despite all such challenges, the number of visitors to the city has increased over the past 18 months, thanks to the UNESCO decision in June 2012 to grant world heritage status to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
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 2 million people visited the town.
“There was a significant jump in tourism in Palestine in 2012 with an 18 percent rise in the number of visitors,” Maayah said.
Receiving thousands of visitors during Christmas, the occupied city of Bethlehem suffers low occupancy rate al through 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,” Baboun said.
“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.”
Israeli restrictions were not limited to the city borders.
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, according to the chamber of commerce.
“They take more than 80 percent of the market,” complained Mohammad Awadallah, a Palestinian guide.
Christmas is the main festival on the Christian calendar. Its celebrations reach its peak at 12:00 PM on December 24 of every year.
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