Adrian Blomfield
December 23, 2009 - 1:00am

West Bank Palestinian officials say they have been blocked from benefiting from a record 1.4 million foreign visitors to the occupied West Bank’s most important tourist attraction.
They claim Israeli tour guides play on the fear of the tourists by warning them they face danger as soon as they enter the area.
Thousands of foreign tourists and pilgrims visit each day to see the Church of the Nativity, held by some Christians to mark the exact spot where Christ was born.
But in Manger Square, the souvenir stalls and hawkers can only watch as their wealthy quarry goes in and out of the church a hundred yards away.
Despite being so close, few tourists ever wander as far as the souks “because they have been convinced they have reason to fear”, the hawkers say.
Even those tourists who do venture in have often left their credit cards and wallets in their hotel rooms, they say.
Western embassies assure their nationals it is safe to stay in Bethlehem, but fewer than 30 per cent of visitors choose to spend the night in the city.
Palestinian officials say Israel’s tactics result from a perception of Arabs as second class citizens and a desire to corner the majority of the lucrative tourism market for itself.
As visitors draw close to the city from nearby Jerusalem, they encounter Israel’s separation wall, erected in 2003 to protect it from terrorist attack, and a series of checkpoints manned by armed soldiers.
“When tourists see the wall, they think they are going into a war zone,” said Adnan Suboh, who owns a souvenir shop in the souk. “They are afraid and want to leave as soon as possible.”
For some, things are improving. Cheaper hotels catering to the pilgrim market are reporting full occupancy this month, and there are plans to build more next year to cater for growing numbers.
But at the luxury end of the market, there is still plenty of room at the inn. Bethlehem’s top hotels say they will only be 30 per cent full over Christmas.
Denied the revenues that would accrue from having a Palestinian airport or being able to issue visas, the Palestinian tourist economy needs to get tourists into Bethlehem and keep them there.
Almost three quarters of visitors remain in the city for under two hours. As a result, while nearly half of all visitors to the Holy Land pass through the West Bank’s biblical cities of Bethlehem, Jericho and Hebron, the West Bank receives just five per cent of total tourism revenues, says Khouloud Daibes, the Palestinian tourism minister.
This statistic has caused many in Bethlehem to question the sincerity of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who claims to have brought prosperity to the West Bank.
Although the West Bank’s economy is growing by seven per cent, and unemployment in Bethlehem has fallen from 60 to 35 per cent in the past four years, Palestinians say the recovery is largely due to donor money and relative calm than to the intervention of Mr Netanyahu.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017