Bethlehem a Star in 2010 Tourism

With five new hotels in the works, a handful of new souvenir shops opening recently and nearly 40 restaurants able to serve crowds from 100 to 1,000, the Bethlehem economy is showing signs of recovery following the desperate intifada years. For the first time in years, shop owners and tourist industry workers in the birthplace of Christ are optimistic and have confidence in the economy. For most, 2010 was the best year for business in a decade. Some 10,000 pilgrims and tourists were expected to come through Bethlehem for the Christmas holiday, said Samir Hazboun, chairman of the board of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce. He said hotels in the Bethlehem triangle -- with 2,750 rooms -- are reporting full occupancy. "We are seeing this as good news to the region," he said. He said the unemployment rate has steadily declined since the end of the second intifada in 2005, when 45 percent of residents were out of work. Palestinians in the tourism industry have complained that most pilgrims are shuttled in and out of Bethlehem, quickly visiting the Church of the Nativity and a few select souvenir shops or restaurants. Palestinians also are unhappy with the Israeli requirement that all tourists enter the city through the main Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to Bethlehem. The rule effectively circumvents a 10-year-old Palestinian plan to have visitors bused in through nearby Beit Jalla and into Bethlehem via the historic Star Street in the Old City. A spokesman for the Israeli Civil Administration said beginning Dec. 19 several thousand local Christians would be issued special one-month travel permits for the Christmas season. The permits allow them to travel through the checkpoint into and out of Bethlehem to visit friends and family in other cities. He said several hundred Palestinians were expected to be permitted to travel abroad using the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv rather than having to travel over land to Amman, Jordan. Israeli officials also planned to allow about 200 Palestinian Christians living in Arab countries to visit their families in Israel after obtaining a monthlong permit.

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