x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bethlehem left out in the cold as tourists refuse to stay

While there is no shortage of visitors to the West Bank town’s religious sites, few actually spend the night there – even hotels who fill their guest rooms must offer them at bargain rates.

A tourist lights a candle at the Church of Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus’ birth, ahead of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Ammar Awad / Reuters
A tourist lights a candle at the Church of Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus’ birth, ahead of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Ammar Awad / Reuters

In the public square opposite Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, a gaggle of Palestinian tour guides hone in on the crowds of European tourists, waving their laminated credentials and touting for business.

They could be waiting some time. While hundreds of European, Asian and African pilgrims mill around in matching hats and led by tour guides on this sunny weekend after Easter, few are independent travellers arriving in the city without a guide – and nearly all are here with Israeli tour groups, brought in for just a couple of hours.

“This is the worst year I have ever had,” says Saaed Al Tammari, 29, who has been a tour guide in Bethlehem for the past four years.

Mr Al Tammari says that in the past he could make US$400 per day guiding tourists around the church and other religious sites in the city, but now he is lucky to make $100, even in the high season. On a quiet day he may only bring in $50.

Bethlehem may be by far the biggest tourist market in the West Bank, but the figures are deceptive. Officials say that in 2013, three million people visited the city, but visit “is the operative word” – to be classed as a tourist, a visitor has to spend the night, and only 1.2 million of those stayed in Bethlehem last year.

The vast majority of the tourists coming to the city come with Israeli tour groups as part of a wider Holy Land tour, visiting the church as well as other sites in the city for only a few hours before going back to their hotels in West Jerusalem.

Even those that do stay overnight in Bethlehem pay so little for their rooms that hotels barely break even – officials say that, as part of a tour group, tourists can pay as little as $18 per night for a four-star hotel, including breakfast. This means that outside of the high season, the city’s 3,700 hotels struggle.

“Many people think that because of tourism Bethlehem is wealthy. But here in our area, unemployment is around 26 per cent. The percentage of people working in tourism is very low,” says Samir Hazboun, the chairman of Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce.

Mr Hazboun puts the number of Palestinians working in tourism in Bethlehem at around 3,000, compared to an estimated 15,000 that work outside, travelling through the city’s infamous Checkpoint 300 daily to take jobs in Jerusalem.

Such pessimism may sound strange coming after Easter, when thousands of tourists come to visit Bethlehem’s holy sites and ahead of the high profile visit of Pope Francis today, but Mr Hazboun emphasises that the tour buses parked on the city’s streets are deceptive. Few, if any, are contributing to the Palestinian economy, he says.

“You have to distinguish between tourists and visitors. The majority of people coming to Bethlehem are visitors who visit the Church of the Nativity and then go away. How much are they spending?” he asks. “A few shops are benefiting from that, a few hotels, and that is it.”

For tour guide Mr Al Tammari, it is not just the economic impact of short visits from tourists that is worrying, it is also perception.

“Most of the travel agencies are Israeli and the tour guides are Israelis and when people come here they are told they are visiting Israel. Even the GPS doesn’t work here – it is difficult to find your way to the church,” he says.

“Many tourists come here and they call it Israel. They think they are still in Israel. The Israeli tour guides are like the teachers who feed them information.”

Indeed, the most recent statistics published by the World Tourism Organisation illustrate the problem. Hotel occupancy rates in the Palestinian Territories in 2010 were less than half than that of Jordan and Israel, while the amount of cash spent by visitors was 30 per cent lower. Only Kuwait had fewer tourist arrivals in the entire Middle East region than Palestine, with Yemen and Iraq above it in the rankings.

Mr Hazboun also cites the issue of securing Israeli visas, particularly for Arab pilgrims. This was a problem highlighted by the Middle East Quartet, headed up by the former British prime minister Tony Blair, in a report in March. The report claimed that this was depriving the Palestinian Territories – home to some of the holiest sites in both Islam and Christianity – of huge revenues from Arab visitors.

“How can we control tourism when we don’t control our borders?” asks Mr Hazboun.

“For many visitors, such as Malaysia and India, people need a visa and we cannot issue visas to people. They have to get a visa from Israel. We don’t have our own airport. Everyone is expecting us to make miracles,” he adds, frustrated.

As far as increasing Arab tourism to Palestine, it is something that the government is actively working on. Mr Hazboun, a Christian, feels that if Muslim pilgrims visited the West Bank there would also be substantial benefits for Israel – while visiting Hebron, home to Islam’s third holiest site, they will also visit Jerusalem, home to its second.

“You think only the Palestinians will benefit from this, of course not. The Israelis will benefit too. That type of tourism will be developed,” he said.

But the situation in Bethlehem has not deterred Bethlehem residents from seeking to add to the city’s hotel stock. Mike Shaheen, 31, is developing a new hotel in his family home just inside Bethlehem’s old city. The British-educated businessman, who sells keffiyehs downstairs, feels strongly that tourists are still not seeing enough of his city.

“I think as a city we need to work on getting tourists to spend more time in Bethlehem. It is something we should care about a lot. We have enough hotels, it is not about that. It is about persuading people to spend one hour in Bethlehem after the church, walking in the street, meeting people,” he says.

“But the situation in the Middle East does not help. For somebody who has never been here – for a lot of outsiders – when you talk about the Middle East they think it is one area.”

The perception of security has always been a problem for the Palestinian Territories, with memories of the second intifada still present in the minds of many would-be tourists. It is something that Mr Hazboun thinks is gradually lifting, “As you see we are polite terrorists,” he jokes, “nobody will be kidnapped, or blown up, they can visit the holy sites and enjoy a good meal.”

Mr Al Tammari, meanwhile, blames the wider situation in the Middle East when it comes to perception, the violence in Iraq and Yemen, instability in Egypt and the civil war in Syria, as well as the global economy. It is something of a perfect storm, he believes.

“I think it is a problem with Syria and Lebanon, the Palestine and Israel issue, and the international economy too – people don’t have the money to travel,” he says, as we drink coffee in a cafe next to the square.

“Four years ago they would have come to visit Egypt, Syria, Jordan and then visit us as part of a tour, but now they don’t want to spend the money.”

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