Jesus’ birthplace sees fourfold increase in Christmas tourists


Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, is experiencing a fourfold increase in visitors after seven bleak Christmas seasons, the city’s mayor said.

About 250,000 visitors will visit the city this week, up from 65,000 in the same week last year, Mayor Victor Batarseh said in a telephone interview. An estimated 1.25 million tourists are expected to visit Bethlehem by this year’s end, representing a 96 percent increase from 2007, according to the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“All 3000 rooms in Bethlehem have been booked for Christmas,” said Samir Hazboun, chairman of the chamber. “Unemployment in the city has fallen to 23 percent from 45 percent last year.”

Tourism in the West Bank city took a deep hit in the last seven years, plummeting by 90 percent from 2000 to 2001 with the inception of the so-called second Palestinian intifada, which saw a rise in violence throughout the region. This year, unrest has sunk to a relative low in the West Bank as forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been in peace talks with Israel since 2007, consolidate control over the territories.

Michael Kreitem’s Bethlehem Star Hotel, along the ancient footpaths where Mary and Joseph once strolled before they returned with a son, was bustling with hordes of Russian-speaking Christian pilgrims, arriving from a one-day tour of Nazareth.

Catalina Kolchik, 32, said she had just come back from the Church of Nativity, where according to the Christian tradition, Mary first appeared with Jesus Christ.

Star of Bethlehem

Outside the church, which is divided inch-for-inch by Armenian, Catholic and Orthodox clerics, a 50-feet (15 meters) pine tree was erected, draped with ornaments and capped by a Star of Bethlehem, which the Gospel of Matthew says was what led the wise men to travel to Bethlehem to worship Jesus.

Scores of Palestinian policemen were deployed around the Old City’s perimeter and along the entrances to religious sites, actively surveying vehicles and pedestrians passing through.

Israel’s army and Palestinian security services coordinated “to ensure smooth and secure passage for pilgrims, tourists and religious leaders,” Lt. Col. Eyad Sirhan, Head of the Civil Administration’s Bethlehem Coordination Office, said.

A record two million Christian tourists visited Israel and the Palestinian territories this year according to the Israeli Tourism Ministry.

Still, Saied Querid, a fluent English speaker who works as a tour guide and taxi driver in Bethlehem, said most of the tourists are Christians who come to the city just to see the key sites and end up spending most of their time in Israel.

“People are still afraid of sleeping here and spending more than one or two days here,” said Querid. “There is a stigma that this is a dangerous place for people to visit. Our economy has a lot more potential to benefit from the boom in tourism in Israel.”

Fighting In Gaza

Fighting continues in Gaza where the militant group Hamas took control last year and access is restricted by international travel warnings. Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian militants in Gaza resumed firing rockets into Sderot and other Israeli border towns while Israel has carried out aerial attacks in Gaza after a six-month truce ended Dec. 19.

Visitors to Bethlehem coming from Israel have to pass through a fortified checkpoint, cutting through an 8-meter high concrete wall which winds down the hilly slopes of East Jerusalem. Israelis say the security wall, about 10 percent of a barrier between Israel and the West Bank, is a necessary tool to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian attacks while opponents of the wall say it annexes Palestinian land and breaches international law.