Palestinians in Bethlehem look beyond religious tourism

Religious tourism is a boon for the local economy but many Palestinians say the city’s modern residents are largely ignored.
Monday 23/12/2019
A Banksy wall painting showing an Israeli border police officer and a Palestinian in a pillow fight dercorates one of the rooms of The Walled Off Hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AP)
A must-see for holidays. A Banksy wall painting showing an Israeli border police officer and a Palestinian in a pillow fight dercorates one of the rooms of The Walled Off Hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AP)

For decades, the people of Bethlehem watched tour buses drive to the Church of the Nativity, disgorge passengers for a few hours at the traditional birthplace of Jesus and return to Israel.

In recent years, however, a new form of tourism has taken root, focused on the West Bank town’s Palestinian residents, their culture, history and struggles under Israeli occupation.

As pilgrims descend on Bethlehem this Christmas, they have the option of staying in restored centuries-old guesthouses, taking food tours of local markets and perusing the dystopian art in and around a hotel designed by the British graffiti artist Banksy.

The centrepiece of tourism and the focus of Christmas celebrations in the coming weeks is the sixth-century Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born. Extensive renovations saved the roof from collapse and revealed colourful wall mosaics depicting angels and saints.

The Vatican recently returned a small part of what Christians believe to be the original manger in which the baby Jesus was placed. The thumb-sized relic, which was sent to Rome as a gift to the pope in the seventh century, is displayed in an ornate silver case in a chapel adjoining the church.

In Manger Square, just outside the church, a massive Christmas tree has been set up and festivities are planned for the coming weeks as various denominations mark staggered Christmas celebrations. On January 7, Bethlehem will host an international Santa convention.

Tourism has suffered during outbreaks of violence between Israel and the Palestinians but the Palestinian Tourism Ministry said it expects 3.5 million visitors to Bethlehem in 2019, up from 3 million the previous year, and many think there is room for growth.

“The general situation in Palestine and the Holy Land is that there is very good security, better than most countries in the world, and so the people are visiting," said Elias al-Arja, chairman of the local hotel association.

He noted that while the Holy Land includes the most important sites in Christianity, including places where tradition says Christ was born, grew up, was crucified and resurrected, it attracts far fewer visitors than the Vatican. “We have the opportunity to draw more people,” he said.

Religious tourism is a boon for the local economy but many Palestinians say the city’s modern residents are largely ignored.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Middle East war. The Palestinians view the territories as part of their national homeland and hope to one day establish an independent state.

Visitors travelling to Bethlehem pass through a sprawling Israeli checkpoint and drive along the separation wall, which Israel began building during the second Palestinian intifada in the early 2000s.

Israel says the barrier is needed to prevent attacks but the Palestinians view it as a land grab because its route places almost 10% of the West Bank on the Israeli side. Bethlehem itself is almost surrounded by the barrier and a string of Jewish settlements.

The town’s predicament is on vivid display in and around the Walled-Off Hotel, which was designed by Banksy and opened in 2017. The hotel looks out on the separation wall, which itself is covered with artwork, graffiti and museum panels explaining life under occupation. Inside, several Banksy pieces are depicted in a haunting lobby, which this time of year is dimly lit with Christmas lights.

The hotel offers weekly performances by local musicians and daily tours of a nearby Palestinian refugee camp. Tours of Banksy’s public artwork elsewhere in the town can be organised on request.

A different form of alternative tourism, conceived by Palestinians, can be found in the city centre a few hundred metres from the church. There the municipality, with Italian aid, restored an 18th-century guesthouse and rented it out to Fadi Kattan, a French Palestinian chef.

The Hosh Al-Syrian Guesthouse includes 12 tastefully furnished rooms ranging from $80-150 a night. At its Fawda Restaurant -- Arabic for “chaos” -- Kattan uses local ingredients to cook traditional Palestinian cuisine with a modern twist.

“My vision was to say religious tourism will promote itself by itself. It doesn’t need the private sector to promote it," he said. “Let’s promote everything else. Let’s promote our food. Let’s promote our culture. Let’s promote our history."

Kattan is especially keen to promote Palestinian cuisine, which he said has been appropriated by Israeli chefs and food writers. As with nearly everything else having to do with the Middle East conflict, there are two sides: Israeli cuisine owes much to Jewish immigrants from ancient communities across the Middle East and North Africa.

The guesthouse works with a local group known as Farayek to offer food tours in which visitors wander through the local market, meeting farmers, butchers and bakers before having lunch at the guesthouse. Another programme includes cooking classes taught by a Palestinian grandmother.

“What I was hoping to achieve is to have people stay three nights in Bethlehem, to have people go to the fruit and vegetable market, to have people meet the people of Bethlehem, not just the very short tour into the city," he said.

When the guesthouse opened in 2014, the average stay was one night but now it has risen to three-and-a-half nights, with steady occupancy throughout the low season, Kattan said.

A handful of other restored guesthouses have opened in recent years, including Dar al-Majus, Arabic for “House of the Magi,” named for the three kings said to have visited the manger after Jesus was born.

The guesthouse is part of a wider initiative by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and a local association to support the Christian community. Bethlehem's Christian community, like others across the Middle East, has dramatically dwindled in recent decades as Christians fled war and conflict or sought better economic opportunities abroad.

A local family living next to the guesthouse cooks breakfast and traditional meals for guests and the guesthouse employs members of another two families. The guesthouse mostly supplies itself from the local market and there are plans to expand to another restored house in the old quarter next year.

Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman said he expects the recent growth in tourism to continue.

“Each season is more active and more organised and more attractive for the local community in Palestine and for the tourists,” he said.