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Bethlehem tourism industry struggles year after Gaza war

Tourism in the Palestinian holy city has been down by 30 percent this season, PA tourism ministry spokesman tells MEE
Souvenir and other tourist dependent businesses in Bethlehem are struggling to stay open since the drastic decrease in tourism (MEE/Abed al Qaisi)

BETHLEHEM - Ibrahim Suboh stands inside the shiny marble lobby of St Michael’s Hotel in the center of Bethlehem, West Bank. The high-rising wall of windows that line the building’s front facade reflect the fully stocked bar and patent leather couches. The only thing missing in the gleaming establishment is guests.

While St Michael’s seems perfectly average - it would fit right in at any tourist destination in the world - last year it looked like a hotel caught in the middle of a warzone.

"The clashes last year were happening every single night for weeks and weeks. They affected business in Bethlehem a lot. We have lowered our prices for rooms by a third, just to try to get people in," Suboh, night manager at St Michael’s, told Middle East Eye.

Ibrahim Suboh says his hotel has lowered the rate of rooms by a third, hoping to attract more guests during the slow year (MEE/Abed al Qaisi)

A few hundred meters down the street from the hotel is an Israeli military base stationed on the other side of the towering separation wall that lines the West Bank. The base has a large garage-like opening in the wall, allowing Israeli soldiers easy access to Bethlehem.

The close proximity of St Michael’s to that opening means clashes often take place directly in front of the hotel.

During last year's 50-day Israeli offensive in Gaza, the large door opened wide every night as dozens of Israeli soldiers and jeeps entered Bethlehem and confronted hundreds of Palestinian protesters.

Large flower pots sit right outside the hotel's front doors. Soldiers used to use the pots as cover, Suboh said, while mounting their guns on the brims of the pots in fully geared green military fatigues, making the hotel a target for slingshot-hurled stones.

Stray rocks thrown by young Palestinian protesters, or metal tear gas canisters from an Israeli jeep, would come rocketing at the glass of the hotel frequently, chipping or shattering glass panels in the lobby or the room windows above.

"These windows," Suboh said, pointing at the gleaming glass panels, "have been replaced 76 times in one year”.

During the height of the protests, St Michael's was completely empty, as guests did not dare choose to stay so close to the upheaval.

While last year Suboh was not surprised his lobby was full of journalists taking cover from the scene outside, instead of guests, he was sure that after the upheaval had passed things would go back to normal and his hotel would again be full of tourists on holiday.

"People saw what happened last year in the West Bank and Gaza," Suboh said. "That combined with what is happening in Iraq and Syria with the Islamic State (IS), I think the tourists are just too scared to come here this summer. If they don’t think Bethlehem is dangerous because of last year, then they think the Middle East is dangerous because of this year."

While St Michaels would usually be full, housing around 400 guests on any given day during the summer tourist season, that number has drastically dropped this year to around 20.

“We used to get internationals in, mostly, but now our only guests are locals, people from Ramallah who have come to see family, things like that,” Suboh says.

Suboh's hotel is not the only one feeling the hit of the declining tourists.

Right across the street of St Michael's is a castle-like structure that was formerly the Intercontinental Hotel - now named Jacir's Palace after the branding was rescinded a few months ago due to low sales.

Ministry of Tourism spokesperson Jiries Qumsiyeh confirmed that tourism has dropped significantly since last year's upheaval.

"Bethlehem's economy depends on tourism," Qumsiyeh told MEE. "The hotels, the religious sites, the bus companies, the souvenir shops, the restaurants, all of them are suffering because this year people are not coming to Bethlehem like before."

Qumsiyeh estimates that tourism in Bethlehem has declined by around 30 percent, but locals say that number is much higher.

George Abu Aita, owner of Good Shepherd's Souvenir and Gifts, said while he normally has about 50 tour buses scheduled to visit in August, at the moment he only has four bus bookings.

George Abu Aita, owner of Good Shepherd's Souvenir and Gifts says his business has dropped by nearly 60 percent since before last summer's upheaval (MEE/Abed al Qaisi)

"I would say we have lost around 60 percent of our business since last year before the clashes and Gaza war until now.

"Just look,” he added, motioning toward a dead-quiet shop during mid-day. "We have a big problem here, especially here in Bethlehem, because we need tourists."

Abu Aita's shop is typical of a souvenir shop in Bethlehem. Upon entering, the heady smell of carved olive wood is overpowering. Life-sized statues of Jesus, giant crosses and detailed nativity scenes - all carved out of local wood from olive trees - line the high-ceilinged store floor.

Some of the larger statues and handmade jewellery can run up to $1000. The store, Abu Aita said, supports about 52 families.

"Some people sell their crafts here on display, some people work inside the store, some people get commission from bringing groups here. In all, there are a lot of people depending on our sales, and right now we are all struggling," Abu Aita said.

Bethlehem's famous Church of the Nativity, the place where Jesus is said to have been born, is just a five-minute drive from Abu Aita's shop.

One woman, wearing a crisp white sun visor and a light scarf wrapped around her bare shoulders, stands outside the large stone structure, her tour group scattered around the courtyard. She told MEE she always dreamed of visiting Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, but that she and her husband were nervous to make their trip from the US.

"I was a bit nervous coming over right now with all that's happening in the Middle East,” she said. "But in the end we spoke to our embassy and read as much as we could and decided to come. Once we were in Israel we went to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea and saw some sites. I almost thought we shouldn't come to the West Bank, but I figured we came all this way, so I guess we'd better."

The woman said she would not be staying in Bethlehem long. She and her tour group were due to be back on the bus after making a few rounds of stops at religious sites in Bethlehem.

Suboh says tourists deciding to sleep in Israel, and just take a day trip to Bethlehem, is a big part of the problem for his hotel.

"We see this a lot," Suboh said. "The few tourists who are coming to Bethlehem feel safer sleeping in Israel and taking a tour to Bethlehem. One person told me he was sleeping in Israel because he heard Bethlehem was dangerous and his tour guide told him not to stay the night here. These people stay for a few hours maximum, they maybe buy some souvenirs, but they eat and sleep in Israel and we don’t see much of their spending."