Bethlehem traders still waiting for Christmas cheer

Tue Dec 1, 2009 6:04am EST
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By Erika Solomon

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - The lights are going up and carols are ringing from Manger Square, but Christmas cheer hasn't spread to all of Bethlehem's residents.

While calm has returned to the Biblical birthplace of Jesus, scene of heavy fighting during the Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, in the early years of this decade, big-spending foreign tourists have mostly not, say the shopkeepers and restaurant owners who depend on them for their livelihood.

Last year, the West Bank town enjoyed its first tourism boom since the Intifada. About 1.5 million people visited Bethlehem in 2008, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism.

"People's presence here during Christmas reflects on coming seasons, and how well the city is doing and whether the situation in the region is good," said Elias al-Arja, president of the Palestine Hotels association.

But even as visitor numbers are projected to rise again, shopkeepers insist they are not feeling the benefit.

Foreign tourists are whisked through Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem on half-day visits organized by tour companies located in Israel. The two cities are divided by just a few kilometers (miles) but also an Israeli wall that complicates the journey.

"I have a clear impression that the Israeli government would prefer that I not come here," said Doris Warrell, an American Protestant minister who was one of the few foreigners that stayed to browse a Christmas market set up this week on Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity, which stands on the spot revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.

Visiting from the United States, Warrell reflected on a very different trip to Bethlehem in 1994, shortly after the launch of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process which is now stalled.   Continued...