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Visit Bethlehem While You Still Can

By Madison Dudley | The Media Line

May 16, 2017

Photo: Madison Dudley
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Israel Attempts To Limit Tourism To West Bank

Jerusalem and Bethlehem are only a few miles apart, and most tourists visit both cities. But if the Israeli Ministry of the Interior has its way, it will become harder to sleep over in Bethlehem as part of any trip.

The new rule would make it illegal for tourists who come to Israel as part of a tour group to stay overnight in the West Bank. The order, issued last month, specifically cites Bethlehem and seems aimed at Christian pilgrimage groups. It would not affect individual travelers.

While the Interior Ministry originally cited security concerns, Israeli and Palestinian tour operators said the move was meant to protect Israeli hotels, which are significantly more expensive than hotels in the West Bank, from losing business. In the end, after a public outcry, the Ministry put the move on hold, but tour operators on both sides worry it could be reissued any time.

Bethlehem, with the Church of the Nativity, and Jericho as the oldest inhabited city, have been popular pilgrimage spots for centuries. The turmoil in the region, and especially terrorist attacks in Israel and the West Bank, dealt a sharp blow to tourism. A series of conflicts between Israel and the Islamist Hamas in the Gaza Strip, most recently in 2014, as well as a series of stabbing and shooting attacks in 2015 and 2016 had kept many tourists away.

There are signs, however, that tourism is going back up. In April, Israel experienced the highest-ever number of tourists in a month, with 394,000 tourists visiting the country, a 38 percent increase from the same time last year. It is important to note however, that even Israel’s best year for tourism – 2012, with 3.5 million visitors – pales in comparison to other Middle Eastern countries. Tunisia, for example, had 4.5 million tourists in 2016, despite two massacres that killed dozens of tourists the year before. In 2010 there were almost seven million visitors to Tunisia.

Shortly after the order forbidding overnight stays in Bethlehem was announced, there was widespread backlash from the international tourism community. Tour operators on both sides have groups booked well into next year. Media reports say the Israeli Ministry of Tourism was not consulted.

“It (the order) would have a detrimental impact not just on Palestinians but on Israeli tour operators,” Sami Khoury, the current president of Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association (HLITOA told The Media Line. Khoury works with Sheppard Tours and runs the website visitpalestine.pa, a travel site for the independent traveler wanting to craft their own West Bank experience.

Palestinians say that if it is applied, the Israeli order could have a devastating impact.

“Tourism is the lifeblood of many Palestinian communities, like Bethlehem and Jericho,” the CEO of Green Olive tours, Fred Schlomka, told The Media Line. Green Olive Tours take groups through both Israel and the West Bank to try to offer visitors a look at both sides of the conflict.

Thousands of tourists travel to the West Bank every year, and Schlomka said the majority of his customers are curious travelers interested in the political and religious landscape of the region.

“I would really like to go to Palestine and discover more about the history, the archaeology the peoples and their customs,” said 52-year-old Nicki Spicer, a family doctor from the United Kingdom who has traveled the world, except for the Middle East.

Spicer is afraid to visit the West Bank she fears she will be denied entry by Israel for just attempting to visit the area. “I worry whether I will be allowed into Palestine by the Israeli customs if I did make the journey,” Spicer told The Media Line through email. “I know I am not likely to feel as relaxed as I would if I were planning a trip to Spain.”

Green Olive Tours were not notified directly by the Ministry of Interior about the order. Schlomka believes the decision to publish the order, even though it was later frozen, had more to do with politics than tourist safety. “It’s a decline of Israel away from norms of democratic countries,” Schlomka said.

The Ministry of Tourism for the Palestinian Authority reported a significant increase of overnight visitors, with 39,700 more tourists spending the night in the West Bank than the previous year.

There are no concrete numbers of how many tourists to Israel go to Bethlehem for the day.

Israel controls the border with the West Bank, making it difficult for the Palestinian Authority to know who is entering and leaving the country and for what purpose.

Khoury said overnight visits are more important for the economy than day-trippers. Large tour groups will do half-day trips to areas of Palestine, like Bethlehem, and these shorts visits, in Khoury’s view, don’t give tourists enough time to explore and spend money in the places they visit. He believes that the motivation behind the proposed ban was political, but also economic. It is cheaper to stay in Bethlehem than to stay in Jerusalem, and with the current tourism boom happening in the West Bank, Khoury thinks the increase in competition gave Israel more of a reason to act.

“(Palestine) is now able to compete on price, service, and facilities with Israeli hotels,” Khoury told The Media Line.

Madison Dudley is a student journalist with The Media Line

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