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Better times return to Bethlehem

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Bethlehem

Foreign tourist in Palestinian headdress at Church of the Nativity
Hundreds of thousands more visitors have come to Bethlehem
As a flock of tourists strode up to the entrance of the Church of the Nativity - the reputed site of Jesus Christ's birth - a Palestinian tour guide moved in for the hard sell.

"Do you need a guide?" asked Adil Dweib as the visitors marched by him without saying a word.

In previous years, Mr Dweib would have pursued the group, but this time he shrugged his shoulders and rejoined a couple of colleagues leaning against a wall.

The work of church leaders across the world has helped in selling Bethlehem as a safe city for pilgrimage
Mayor Victor Batarseh
"This year is like 2000," says Mr Dweib - a slight exaggeration perhaps, as the millennium year was a bumper time for tourism in Bethlehem.

"Business is good and next year there will be hopefully even more tourists," he adds.

Community and business leaders, shopkeepers and tour guides, all tell you the same thing: the economy is getting better in this Christian pilgrimage centre in the rolling West Bank hills.

During the second Palestinian uprising, which started in September 2000, tourism collapsed.

Israeli military incursions were a regular occurrence and in 2002 there was the siege of the Church of the Nativity in which 39 Palestinian gunmen holed up in the church for more than five weeks.

Worshippers in the Church of the Nativity
Worshippers in the Church of the Nativity - in 2002 the scene of violent siege

Most visitors stayed away during this period and some of the shops still bear scars - their signage pocked by bullet holes.

But with relative stability of the last two years, tourists and pilgrims are returning to the town - located 6 miles (10 km) from Jerusalem - in large numbers.

According to the Bethlehem municipality, 625,000 visitors came to the town this year with a further 70,000 expected during the Christmas period. This is four times as many tourists as visited during December 2005.

"The work of church leaders across the world, along with travel agents and the Palestinian tourism ministry, has all helped in selling Bethlehem as a safe city for pilgrimage," says the city's Mayor Victor Batarseh.

Handicrafts

Boosting the economy in Bethlehem - where tourism is the biggest employer - has also been singled out by the international community as a key part of resuscitating the West Bank's devastated economy.

Last week, international Middle East envoy Tony Blair spent a night in one of the town's hotels in a show of support.

Tourism accounts for almost a fifth of the Palestinian economy, according to the city's chamber of commerce. There are about 30 hotels and 300 handicraft workshops in Bethlehem all employing large numbers of locals.

I feel safer here than I do walking down some streets in the UK. The fact that people are coming here shows the Palestinians that they are not completely forgotten by the outside world
Mike Quincy, tourist

Victor Tabbash, owner of the Nativity Store, which sells olive wood nativity scenes, crosses, and other religious souvenirs, says that the surge in tourism means greater economic stability for the town's 25,000 residents.

In addition to his shop, he runs a workshop that employees 100 workers.

"We'd like more American tourists to visit Bethlehem," he says. "They spend a lot of money."

But some shopkeepers and hoteliers complain that not enough tourists spend the night in Bethlehem and that the tourists are strictly marshalled by their guides which only benefits stores paying kickbacks.

Palestinian women cross Bethlehem checkpoint
Palestinians need permission to cross the Bethlehem checkpoint

They also bitterly complain about Israel's West Bank barrier - here an imposing eight-metre (24-foot) concrete wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

Safety

The Israeli authorities say they built the barrier as a response to Palestinian militants, including suicide bombers, attacking Israeli civilians.

Residents here say it deters tourists and impedes their lives as Palestinians must get a permit to go to Jerusalem.

"Tourists think that they are entering a lion's den when they see the wall," says Nadia Hazboun, who works as a sales assistant in one of the Manger Square tourist shops.

But most visitors' safety fears are allayed as they walk through the city's winding, windswept streets, decorated with coloured lights after a $50,000 (25,000) donation from the Palestinian Authority.

"I feel safer here than I do walking down some streets in the UK," says Mike Quincy, 61, a retired police officer from Britain, visiting the city with a group of friends.

"The Palestinians feel hopeless and abandoned and the fact that people are coming here shows them that they are not completely forgotten by the outside world," he adds.


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