Israelis, Palestinians Battle For Tourist Dollars

Christian tourism has become a billion dollar industry for Israeli and Palestinian tour operators that capitalize on the region's holy sites. This year, Israeli officials said they are set to "break records."

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Christian tourism has become a billion-dollar industry in Israeli and the Palestinian territories, thanks to the region's holy sites. Israeli officials say they expect record numbers of Christian pilgrims this year. But within the booming industry, Israelis and Palestinians are sparring over who can draw the interest - and the wallets - of those visitors. Sheera Frenkel reports from Jerusalem.

(Soundbite of people singing in foreign language)

SHEERA FRENKEL: On Christmas Eve in Bethlehem's Manger Square, tens of thousands of tourists flocked to celebrate the holiday in the cradle of Christianity. It's the busiest time of year for this little West Bank town. Palestinians here say that their economy is completely dependent on tourists.

Mr. MOHAMMAD IBRAHIM(ph): It depends on tourism I can say about 99 percent. Yes, because Bethlehem without tourism is dead. So, we are living on tourism here.

FRENKEL: That's Mohammad Ibrahim, a 62-year-old local shop owner who sells T-shirts and nativity scenes next door to Bahamas, a well-known Bethlehem restaurant.

Years of violence and political turmoil took their toll on Bethlehem, with numbers dropping to a record low of 12,000 visitors in 2009. This year, however, there has been a stunning reversal, with a record high of more than 100,000 visitors to the Holy Land during the holiday season. And the locals here are busy finding new and innovative ways to encourage them to spend.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Let's say like this, you know, for a tourist, when he comes to the little town of Bethlehem he like to take back with him some nice souvenirs.

FRENKEL: Hundreds of vendors like Ibrahim compete to sell figurines and olive-wood crosses. Now, there are new items, like a nativity scene that includes a model of Israel's West Bank separation barrier.

Bahamas, the restaurant next to Ibrahim's shop drew a crowd when it displayed its menu in ten foot print on the separation barrier which looms directly in front of the eatery.

For Bethlehem, the steepest competition comes from the adjacent city of Jerusalem, which has started to push for a greater slice of the Christian tourist pie in recent years.

Stas Misezhnikov, Israel's Minister of Tourism, says that Christians make up more than two-thirds of the 3.5 million tourists who visit Israel each year.

Mr. STAS MISEZHNIKOV (Minister of Tourism, Israel): The worldwide Christian population is our principal audience for positioning the state of Israel as the holy land with Jerusalem as its center.

FRENKEL: Israel had launched a massive push to develop sites that would be of interest to Christian tourists. And the tourism ministry decided to license a group of Israeli tour guides to lead tours in Bethlehem, which until now has been the sole domain of Palestinian tour groups. The decision has angered local Palestinians, who claim that Israel is trying to dominate both markets.

During his annual Christmas tree lighting speech Victor Batarseh, the mayor of Bethlehem accused Israel of underhanded-behavior. He said that Israel took 95 percent of the benefits of tourism, using the Bethlehem name to drum up more business.

Misezhnikov argues that tourism is a win-win situation.

Mr. MISEZHNIKOV: (Foreign language spoken) (Through Translator) At the end of the day we need to bring here more tourists for everyone. Where will they celebrate Christmas? In Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

FRENKEL: Ehab Ghareeb(ph), an olive-wood carver in Bethlehem, agrees that more tourists would benefit everyone. The 26-year-old says the problem isn't these next few weeks but the long months between the holidays.

Mr. EHAB GHAREEB: We just have Christmas season and Easter season. This is the time that you work.

FRENKEL: Like many other Palestinian Christians, Ghareeb is fed up with the violence and the political uncertainties that could bring another lull in business. So, he is thinking of leaving the region entirely, and trying his hand elsewhere.

Mr. GHAREEB: You know, at the end of the day. I can survive but I can't live.

FRENKEL: For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem.

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