A tourist revival in Bethlehem has seen the number of visitors double this year.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority cite improved security as the main factor in bringing 1.25 million tourists to Bethlehem, twice as many as in 2007.
But while Israel stresses that it has made it easier for tourists to cross from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the PA insists difficulties still remain and that tourism figures could be higher if not for the difficulties still involved in travel.
Decorative lights hang across the entrance to Bethlehem but a wall separates the city from Jerusalem and tourists must pass a checkpoint with barbed wire and watchtowers.
“Things are better than last year but we are still much below our ceiling,” says Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayya, the PA tourism minister. “If access and free movement were guaranteed, the numbers would double or triple. There has been a certain improvement but it is not up to our expectations.”
However, unemployment has dropped from 50 per cent in 2005 to 20 per cent, and all 19 hotels in Bethlehem are fully booked for Christmas.
The Alexander has even expanded to accommodate the tourist boom. “We added one floor, it was finished three months ago. So we hope another war won’t happen. This is the best year we have ever had, even better than 2000,” says manager Joseph Canavati, who said many guests are Arab Israelis.
Bethlehem mayor Victor Batarseh credits the efforts of Ms Dayya and churches abroad for marketing Bethlehem as safe. “We are grateful for this solidarity,” he says.
Recalling the lean years of the intifada, tour guide Adel Dweib said: “We thank the Lord that now it’s much better than before.” But some shop owners say not all are benefiting.
“I can’t afford to pay the commission,” says a shop owner sitting in an empty store adorned with mother-of-pearl crucifixes and olive wood bible scenes. “You need to pay 30 per cent of sales to the guide and 10 percent to the driver. The office also gets a cut. If you don’t pay, you don’t get the business.”
Mr Dweib does not deny the charges. “There is commission everywhere in the world,” he says.