“With a history that envelops more than one million years, Palestine has played an important role in human civilization… it is where settled society, the alphabet, religion, and literature developed, and would become a meeting place for diverse cultures and ideas that shaped the world we know today.”
These are the enticing words that greet visitors to the official page for prospective tourists coming to Palestine.
That is not the problem.
Instead of opening the inviting page, potential pilgrims or holidaymakers are much more likely to see televised images of ruins in Gaza, confrontations between Molotov-cocktail-throwing youths and rubber-bullet-shooting Israeli soldiers or the deeply furrowed visages of local politicians.
Or, in the words of Duha Bandak, general manager of the Grand Hotel Bethlehem, “you and I wouldn’t go on vacation to a troubled place, right? So why should they?”
The “they” she refers to are the tourists who are choosing to keep away from Palestine’s top tourism magnets, turned off by the images of violence and grim political news.
Bandak, who spoke with The Media Line by phone, said her 104 room hotel had “zero occupancy” for New Years’ night. In mid-February, 38 room were taken.
Issa Hannouneh, who presides over Bethlehem’s Holy Family Hotel, that boasts 90 rooms, reported that “2015 was awful, with maybe 37% occupancy.”
This year, he’s managed to stave off mass cancellations by initiating a joint plan with Jerusalem’s Eternity Travel agency to bring Catholic pilgrims from Poland. “We have group reservations through March or April, but they just book, they don’t confirm.”
“February is down,” he told The Media Line, “occupancy is at about 77%, including the charters from Poland.”
“In 2014, I think all the February groups were cancelled. All of them.”
The 2014 summer Gaza war all but did away with incoming tourism to Palestine for 2014 and early 2015; the latter part of the year and early 2016 has been struck by the intermittent but persistent wave of violence that has not abated since early October, 2015.
Jiries Qumsyieh, the public relations coordinator for Palestine’s Ministry of Tourism, said that 2.2 million foreign visitors arrived in 2015, down 11% from the 2.5 million tourists who came in 2014.
“It is because of the continuance of the Israeli military activities,” he said in conversation with The Media Line, “especially around Bethlehem. Less visitors are coming to the Holy City for the Christmas season and even less are staying in Bethlehem.”
Duha Bandak, of the Grand Hotel, agreed that “it is worse than last year. We don’t have many requests. Usually at this season we will be reserved for at least six months ahead. You cannot say that this is a good season. Or that we have a lot of inqueries.”
“It is because of the political situation first of all,” she explained. “The situation in the country is not easy. Tourists know about Gaza or they know about Tel Aviv, and they are all afraid to come here to Bethlehem.”
Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial capital on the Mediterranean Sea, has become a tourism Mecca in recent years, with young Europeans flying in and out for weekends of beach-side revelry, and, following a directed ad campaign, gay tourism incoming from the world over.
Gaza is what much of the world thinks of when they think of “Palestine,” and not, Bandak says with regret, “the small gem that is Bethlehem.”
“Also,” she adds, “the policies of the Israelis affect us. Its indirect completion with tourists coming through Israel. Israelis also have empty rooms in their own tourism sector, so first of all they have to fill their own hotel rooms, and then they say ‘if there aren’t empty rooms here, check in with Bethlehem.’”
Another obstacle are the travel websites and governments who alert tourists they should travel to Bethlehem only “on your own responsibility.”
“So how can they guess that Bethlehem is a peaceful and beautiful place?” Bandak wonders.