BETHLEHEM — This holy city is praying for another Christmas miracle.
Months of violence near this cradle of Christianity has dampened visits by holiday pilgrims, and there are few signs tourism will rebound anytime soon. Still, residents hope the expected upsurge of visitors on Christmas Eve will lead to long-term cheer in the struggling tourism industry.
“There are no tourists. It’s been this way for half a year, but we understand the hotels are full for Christmas, so that’s a glimmer of hope,” said Louis Michel, a storekeeper and resident of this town where tradition holds the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.
“People have been scared away. We’ve never experienced such a sustained drought of pilgrims.”
Gazing at his shop’s shelves packed with locally made olive-wood sculptures of Nativity scenes and religious items made of mother-of-pearl, Michel said this was the first year that he had not replenished stock at his store near Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.
“I haven’t been able to sell what I already have. It’s difficult for me, but also for the many families here who rely on the income from the local factories,” he said.
The violence began in June, then intensified over the summer as Israel and Hamas traded rockets in a conflict that ended in a cease-fire deal in August. Violence continued after that deal, including widespread rioting and a rise in Palestinian terror attacks, mainly in Jerusalem, 5 miles north of Bethlehem.
Before the violence broke out, Israel officials reported a 17% increase in the number of tourists for the year while Palestinian officials announced a 19% increase. Both governments include disputed East Jerusalem in their statistics.
In all, more than 2.5 million visitors traveled to the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2014, and 3.5 million visited Israel, including East Jerusalem. Palestinians and Israelis expect to end the year with a net decline in visitors. Israeli authorities predict a 1% drop for 2014.
Tourism in East Jerusalem — packed with Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall and Al-Aqsa Mosque — also has yet to rebound. This time last year, the narrow, winding alleyways of the walled Old City were packed with holiday visitors. Today, not so much.
“Business is way down, 90% down, since the Gaza war,” said Eli Kouz, a shopkeeper in the Old City’s Christian Quarter. “The only people walking down this street are locals, not pilgrims,” he said, pointing to a closed-circuit monitor displaying the pedestrian walkway outside his shop, a few hundred feet from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
When Israeli tourism suffers, Palestinian tourism suffers, and that’s being felt especially hard this holiday season, said Raed Saadeh, vice president of the Arab Hotel Association. The dearth of tourists “affects the entire community of every city linked to Christian heritage, whether in Israel or Palestine,” he said.
There are some bright spots: Bethlehem’s hotels will be full on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, said Jiries Qumsiyeh, head of public relations for the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism.
“But the past six months have been challenging,” Qumsiyeh quickly added. “We will be doing more outreach to promote Palestine as a safe destination.”
In Nazareth, Raful Jabaly, 80, expressed hope business will improve after Christmas despite seeing a decrease in diners at his restaurant across the street from the Church of the Annunciation.
“December is traditionally a weak month for Nazareth because pilgrims prefer to be in Bethlehem for Christmas and come to us once the holiday ends,” he said.
Jabaly said tourism in the Holy Land ebbs and flows with violence in the region, and he’s not holding his breath that will change during the holidays or anytime soon.
“I don’t believe we will ever have peace because the two peoples living here are so stubborn,” he said.