Tills ring out for Christmas in Bethlehem

Sun Nov 30, 2008 12:32pm EST
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By Alastair Macdonald

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - "Jingle Bells" rang out over Manger Square on Sunday as Bethlehem opened a Christmas market that the Palestinian city hopes will help cap a boom year for tourism with a profitable festive season.

"It has been an excellent year," Bethlehem's mayor Victor Batarseh said, forecasting 1.25 million visitors by the end of 2008 and noting a halving in local unemployment.

"We don't have any empty beds. Two years ago, all the hotels were empty."

Trade in the biblical birthplace of Jesus was devastated when a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began in 2000 -- months after a papal visit and millennium celebrations had seemed to lock in a rosy future for Bethlehem as a magnet for tourists and pilgrims in a region aglow with hopes for peace.

Eight years on, hopes for a final settlement with Israel have faded, like the patched up bullet holes in the Nativity Church which bear witness to a five-week siege in 2002. But a decline in violence has tempted back tourists who no longer fear suicide bombers and gunbattles erupting in the streets.

"We have witnessed a rebound in tourism," said Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh, the Palestinian Authority's tourism minister as she toured the handicrafts and festive decorations on sale from wooden booths in the German-style Christmas market.

"We have put Palestine back on the map as a destination," she added, noting hotel occupancy rates were now typically above 70 percent, compared to 10 percent a few years ago.

Israelis attribute some of that calm on the streets of nearby Jerusalem to the construction of hundreds of kilometers (miles) of walls and fencing around the West Bank. People in Bethlehem blame the barrier for discouraging visitors, who must pass through Israeli military checkpoints to reach the city.   Continued...