Tourists are scarce at holy sites

SUN JOURNAL

Israel: Economic hardship hits both Israelis and Palestinians as tourism evaporates in the continuing violence and unrest.

September 30, 2001|By Peter Hermann | By Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - This is a quest for a tourist.

Surely, even during these times of unrest, some khaki-wearing, water-chugging American holding a camera in one hand and a Frommer's tour guide in the other will want to visit this cradle of Christianity, where Christ is believed to have been born.

But Manger Square is virtually empty.

The locals still come. A few worshipers pray inside the fortress-like Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest in the world. A handful of elderly Palestinians chat outside. Police direct traffic, though there are really too few cars to bother with.

One afternoon spent at three prime attractions in Bethlehem and Jerusalem reveals how dismal tourism has become since the attacks Sept. 11 in New York and Washington.

There are no lines to get inside the Church of the Nativity. Only a few visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre - the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection - fares slightly better. Two small Japanese and German tour groups are there.

Throughout Israel and the West Bank, billions of dollars have been lost. Hotels and restaurants have closed.

Terrorism, suicide bombings and other attacks can happen anywhere, Israel tourist officials stress before listing the dismal effects of the yearlong Palestinian uprising. They mention bombs in Spain and violence in Northern Ireland.

"I cannot deny what is happening in Jerusalem," says Yehuda Shen, who works in Israel's Ministry of Tourism office and is in charge of persuading foreigners that their vacation dollars should be spent in Israel.

But, he says, "Things are happening all over the world. Should we be afraid of everything? Then we should grab a helmet and go hide in the basement."

Now it has happened in New York and Washington, two of the United States' premier places to visit. It might be too early to tell what happens to the tourism industry in the United States and whether a one-time attack, even a catastrophic one, differs in effect from a prolonged, deadly struggle in a region.

But this is what it has done to the territory described in the Bible as the Promised Land.

Business is awful, says Tawfic S. Canavati, a tour guide standing in Bethlehem's Manger Square near a line of cabs that hasn't moved in hours. But he has just heard an exciting rumor - three buses packed with American tourists are on the way.

"Things will get better," he says, smiling under the brim of his oversized straw hat. They don't.

The buses, it turns out, carry tour guides, not tourists, flown to the region by Israel to boost the near-dead tourism industry. And they don't come to Bethlehem.

Only a police officer stands in the church's stone courtyard. Inside, through the tiny door designed to keep horses from charging into the sacred house of worship, one woman kneels in prayer, and a man sweeps the floor.

Outside, Palestinians go about their daily business. A Palestinian police officer gets into his car, adorned with a poster of a colleague killed last month during a gunfight with an Israeli soldier in neighboring Beit Jala.

Merchants hawk cactus fruit in front of the Bethlehem Peace Center, adorned with drawings of Abu Ali Mustafa, a suspected militant killed by Israelis in a missile strike last month. "Praise the martyr," it says underneath.

"Tourism in Bethlehem is dead," says George Samour, an assistant tourism minister for the Palestinian Authority, which estimates its loss overall at $300 million in the past 11 months.

Shops are shuttered along Bethlehem's Milk Grotto Street. New hotels for the millennium celebration are either empty or half-built. Restaurant signs advertise over empty buildings. The town felt reborn when peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians looked close several years ago. Then the fractured agreements turned this symbol of life into despair.

Three young European backpackers suddenly walk across Manger Square. They are from Holland, Austria and the Czech Republic, and decline to give their names. "I understand they shoot newspaper reporters and photographers," one says. "I haven't heard of any tourists being shot."

At Adnan al-Korna's gift shop, King Solomon Bazaar, the shelves overflow with olive wood carefully carved into every religious emblem imaginable, from Christian crucifixes to Jewish menorahs.

Al-Korna sits drinking Turkish coffee with fellow merchants and an American friend, Douglas Dicks, who works for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services. His shop lights are turned off, but his door is wide open. Only 30 customers have ventured into this shop in the past 11 months.

The shopkeeper says he once sold hand-carved Nativity sets for $400 "like we were selling Coke at a restaurant." Now, the same item goes for $100.

"I have enough money saved to stay open one more month," says al-Korna, who has four children under 6 to support. "We need peace. I need to feed my children."

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