BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Bethlehem’s traders face a bleak Christmas this year as they compete for a dwindling share of much-needed tourism revenues.
In early December, workers rushed to erect souvenir stalls on Bethlehem’s Manger Square and turn on the Christmas lights in anticipation of the thousands of tourists who will descend on the town to visit the Church of the Nativity, believed to mark the birthplace of Jesus.
But traders grumble that these tourists are whisked in and out of the West Bank town on half-day tours from Jerusalem. With just an hour or two in Bethlehem, visitors have little time to eat or shop in the nearby Old City.
“Christmas used to mean a lot, now it means nothing,” said Ahlan Subor, a 24-year-old trader, whose shop is stacked with scarves, pottery and handcrafted nativity scenes.
Although just a few miles away, Bethlehem is severed from Jerusalem by an Israeli separation wall, serving as a reminder of the violence that engulfed Bethlehem and much of the West Bank in the second Intifada, or mass uprising, that erupted in 2000 and lasted four years.
Israel hastily erected the wall in 2003, citing the need to protect Israeli citizens from Palestinian terror attacks. International bodies quickly condemned the wall’s construction, with some viewing it as an ill-concealed attempt to seize Palestinian land.
In recent years, Bethlehem has enjoyed a fragile peace in the shadow of the wall. Tourists have returned to the town — a major pilgrimage destination for Christians — and the hotels expect to record soaring occupancy rates during the Christmas period this year.
Nearly 1.5 million people visited Bethlehem in 2008, and officials predict the number will be nearer 2 million this year, according to the Palestinian Tourism Ministry.
The figures appear impressive, but Palestinian officials say that the town sees little financial benefit from these visitors.
Seventy percent of all tourists to Bethlehem return to hotels in Israel, while Palestinians receive a mere 5 percent of total revenues from those visiting both Israel and the West Bank, according to Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes.
“They [the Israel government] are looking more toward their own benefit,” Daibes said. “They know they can’t erase Bethlehem from the pilgrimage route, so they want to reduce visits … to just a few hours.”
Israel has widely touted its efforts to reduce restrictions in the West Bank — mainly by dismantling checkpoints to ease movement of goods and labor — to boost the Palestinian economy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government sees economic prosperity as a crucial factor in restoring peace to the region.
These measures have been partly successful, contributing to an expected 7 percent growth in gross domestic product this year. But economists point out that donor aid is as significant a factor for economic growth, and note that hundreds of checkpoints remain.
“When they talk about economic peace … you forget about the core problem, which is the occupation,” Daibes said. “This is Israel’s tactic. They want us to manage the occupation, not (for them) to end the occupation.”
As tourists crowd into the Church of the Nativity to glimpse a sight of Jesus’ manger, souvenir shops in the Old City stand deserted. After exiting the church, most visitors will board a coach bound for Jerusalem.
Anwad Khalil, a 40-year-old trader whose shop is a few yards from Manger Square, said that he had made one sale that day for just 10 euros.
“The big problem is the wall,” Khalil said. “When tourists come and see the wall, they think they are coming to a place of catastrophe. The wall has broken our business. Many tourists are afraid to bring their money and Visa cards with them.”
Some tourists skip Bethlehem altogether, say local hoteliers, particularly if they have visited before. Tourists are put off by the checkpoint in and out of Bethlehem, where they can face lengthy delays.
“Sometimes the buses are not allowed to enter Bethlehem,” said the deputy manager of an upscale Bethlehem hotel, who asked not to be named. “They drop the tourists off between the Israeli and the second border, and tell buses from the Arab side to come and pick them up.”
But Israeli officials bridle at the Palestinian claims. Rafi Ben-Hur, deputy director-general of the Israeli tourism ministry, said his ministry has worked tirelessly to expedite crossings through the checkpoints.
“If the hotels in Bethlehem are busy, it’s good for the area, it will prevent terror,” Ben-Hur said. “We are doing everything [we can] to encourage people to come to Bethlehem.”
Unlike the traders, hotels are enjoying one of their best seasons since 2000, when Christians flocked to Bethlehem in their thousands for the Christmas festivities. This year, hotel occupancy is up by roughly 30 percent.
The vast majority of these, though, are Israeli Arab tourists — Palestinians with Israeli citizenship — while the more lucrative foreign visitors are only slowly trickling back, hoteliers say.
For now, though, Bethlehem is merely getting by, officials say. With little ability to influence the numbers of tourists visiting Bethlehem, restaurateurs and shopkeepers have to make the best of what they have.
“When you are living under occupation, you cannot have a vision,” said deputy mayor George Sa’adeh. “The vision of tourism is controlled by politics and it is controlled by economics.”