In spite of the fact that many media organisations want to focus on the negatives of the Israel Palestinian conflict, the signs are good in Bethlehem
Tens of thousands of visitors are expected to arrive for Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem this week, an influx that will push tourism to Israel to a record high of three million visitors in 2008.The town of Christ’s birth is busy readying for a crush of Christian pilgrims in Manger Square next week, following years of dismal figures during the holiday season. Local hotels are reporting 100% bookings and as many as 60,000 visitors are expected by Christmas Day next Thursday.
Today, Bethlehem is an Arab city of over 100,000 that has lost its Christian majority. The city council has been dominated in recent years by loyalists of Hamas, whose suicide bombing campaign earlier this decade forced Israel to encircle the town with a security wall.
Bethlehem has high unemployment and relies heavily on tourism, which normally peaks around the Nativity celebrations. Thus, Israeli authorities have made extra efforts to ease the entry of pilgrims into Bethlehem this Christmas."There is not just an atmosphere of peace, but an atmosphere of trust for the whole world to see… We believe, when it comes to tourism, there are no borders," said senior Deputy Director General of the Tourism Ministry.
According to statistics released this week, the three million visitors who will have entered Israel this year marks an all-time high and represents a 30% increase over 2007. Some two-thirds of the tourists who arrived in the Holy Land this year, totaling two million travellers, were Christians. Roughly half of them were Catholics and the other half various Protestant and Orthodox denominations.The USA accounted for 625,000 visitors in 2008, (20% of all incoming tourism), followed by Russia, France the UK and then several other European countries plus Canada.
For 58% of tourists in 2008, this was their first visit to Israel, whereas 42% had previously visited the country.