More than one million tourists have visited the city of the Jesus’ birth so far this year and at least another 200,000 are expected by the end of the year.
“One million [visitors] have an important impact on our situation because it shows that this city is not [only] an attractive city for pilgrims but … a secure city,” said Samir Hazboun, head of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce.
This is the first year the Palestinian Authority-controlled city has hosted so many visitors.
Eight years ago, when the Christian world was celebrating the second millennium since the period of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem was hoping for a record turnout. But in September of that year the Palestinian uprising erupted, striking a near death blow to the tourism industry – the mainstay of Bethlehem’s economy – for years to come.
Safety fears saw many tourists and pilgrims reluctant to venture into the city, and later the Israeli security barrier and travel restrictions – intended to prevent terrorists from crossing into Israeli areas – also complicated movement for tourists.
Today the security barrier nearly surrounds Bethlehem and its environs, cutting it off from nearby Jerusalem. Visitors must pass through a checkpoint that looks like a border crossing.
Hazboun said he would like to see freedom of movement between the neighboring cities, with a return of Israeli Jewish tourists who used to frequent the city before 2000. Israelis are forbidden from entering any strictly Palestinian area for security reasons.
Despite the barrier, tourism started to pick up in 2005, and by 2007 and 2008 there was a “dramatic improvement” in the occupancy of hotel rooms, Hazboun told journalists on a pre-Christmas visit to city this week.
Now the 3,000 or so hotel rooms in the area are fully booked through December 25, he said. And Palestinian investors are building an additional three hotels, adding another 250 rooms to the city’s total.
Unemployment, while still high at 23 percent, is down from 45 percent several years ago, Hazboun said.
Ironically, the marked improvement comes at a time of a deepening global economic crisis. But with many people tending to plan and pay for trips abroad months in advance, the downturn has not hit Bethlehem yet.
“We are expecting the impact of the financial crisis after Christmas,” said Hazboun. “Up till now we can say the situation is good, while we are not so optimistic for the next year.”
George Abu Aita said his 180-room Paradise Hotel is full for the season. In previous years the hotel might have been full for the Christmas night, but this year it was booked up both before and after Christmas Day, he told CNSNews.com.
When the political situation is quiet, businessmen in the city see the improvement, he said – a pattern that was evident now.
Store windows in Bethlehem are decorated with Christmas trees and Santa Clauses, and the P.A. has also allocated $50,000 for decorations this year. In general the atmosphere in the city feels more relaxed than it has in recent years.
Nonetheless, Christian shop owner Maher Zaghloul, 29, said he was not yet feeling any affects of an improvement, a state of affairs he ascribed to both the political and economic situation.
“We are managing. Now Christmas is coming. We hope that there will be more jobs and we hope the situation will be better,” said Zaghloul, whose six-month-old store is stocked with tourist gifts like olive wood figurines and locally produced pottery as well as sundry items and costume jewelry.
“You walk around the streets you see Russians, Spanish, Latin Americans. This year has been the best year for tourism,” she said.
But Khoury, who recently returned from living abroad, said stability in the city of 31,000 remains a problem. “One year it’s good, then two years it’s not good,” she said.
Tens of thousands of Christians have left Bethlehem and its environs over recent years, citing economic reason, friction with Muslims, or a combination of the two.
In 1948, an estimated 92 percent of the population comprised Christians. By 1990, the number had dropped to 60 percent and today it stands at around 45 percent. The rest are Muslim.
In the Bethlehem governate, an area encompassing surrounding towns and villages and boasting a population of some 185,000, only about 27 percent are Christian, a figure some believe may be inflated.
Hazboun believes that the global financial crisis may actually help to stem the tide of Christians leaving the city. Those who leave because the economic situation is better elsewhere may be more inclined to stay if that is no longer the case, he said.
-- According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism this year is also an all-time record high in Israel-proper, with some three million visitors expected by the end of 2008, a 30 percent increase over last year.