Nightmare Before Christmas: Unrest Could Sink Holy Land's Tourism Season

Rising violence in Jerusalem and across Israel is having small effect on tourism so far, but operators fear sustained unrest could sour key season for Christian pilgrimages.

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Religious pilgrims brave the crowds to touch what is believed to be the site of Jesus’ birth at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, December 2013.Credit: Yardena Schwartz
Ariel David
Ariel David

Fears of a third intifada could mar the vital Christmas tourism season in Israel and the Palestinian territories, delivering a second blow to an industry still reeling from the summer Gaza war, say officials and venue operators on both sides.

So far the heightened tensions in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel have had a minimal impact on tourism numbers and reservations in the region. But if the violence spirals into a full blown intifada, last-minute cancellations are expected to come in, just at a time when tens of thousands of pilgrims usually visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other holy sites connected to the birth and life of Jesus.

“Most of the unrest is happening in areas that are not tourist spots, but it’s certainly not doing good to tourism,” said Eli Nahmias, director of incoming tourism at the Jerusalem Development Authority.

Speaking of tourist numbers in Jerusalem over the last weeks, Nahmias said, “There are groups here and there that have canceled and are waiting for better times,” but added that the phenomenon was not significant and city authorities were going ahead with all festivals and other planned events for the season.

“December, according to estimates, will not be the same as last year, but it will be close,” he said, noting that 2013 was a record year for tourism in Israel.

Last year, some 75,000 people visited Israel during the Christmas period, which includes all Christian holidays in late December and early January, and around 25,000 of those were pilgrims, according to the Tourism Ministry.

Likely lull ahead

Lower numbers may be in the offing this year. The Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, the Vatican office that organizes pilgrimages to Christian sites around the world, has seen a small drop of two or three percent in Christmas bookings for the Holy Land this season.

“Participation is slightly down compared to previous years,” said Monsignor Liberio Andreatta, CEO of the organization. “We will continue in any case to do our pilgrimages and our chartered flights, because we feel we are on a mission – we are ambassadors of peace.”

Andreatta – who spoke to Haaretz from Nazareth, where he was taking part in an 8-day international march for peace throughout the Galilee, Jerusalem and Bethlehem – said that the fate of the Christmas season depends on how intense and frequent the violence in the capital gets.

“When these things happen, for two or three days we don’t get any reservations; then if nothing happens, the bookings kick off again,” he said.

Violence has been rising in Jerusalem since before the Gaza war, following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youths in the West Bank and the subsequent killing of a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem. In the last few weeks, amid renewed Jewish-Muslim tensions over control of the Temple Mount, violence has spiked, bringing a wave of terror attacks against Israeli civilians and frequent clashes between police and Palestinian youths.

At the Ecce Homo convent, which can host up to 50 pilgrims in Jerusalem’s Old City, a manager who identified herself only as Gilda said she feared that sustained violence would bring not only cancellations but also problems for many of the establishment’s Palestinian staff in reaching their work place, since Israel sometimes slaps a closure on the West Bank in times of severe unrest.

Tourism in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem is also tied to the general security situation, as 86 percent of Christian pilgrims who visit the Jewish state also travel to the birthplace of Jesus, according to the Israeli Tourism Ministry.

Luay Tawil, general manager of the Manger Square Hotel in Bethlehem, said that if the violence continues, the flow of pilgrims will be affected. “There are some cancellations but it’s not huge, it needs a few more days, some more time to know exactly if it’s going to have a huge effect,” he said. “For now we are fully booked for the next eight months, but that doesn’t mean that no cancellations will happen.”

Intifada phobia

All the operators Haaretz spoke to feared that a new intifada could deliver a blow similar to what the tourism industry experienced during and after Operation Protective Edge. In July and August, while Israel’s war against Hamas was raging, the Tourism Ministry recorded a 31 percent drop in visitors. The recovery has been slow, with September showing a still significant 20 percent drop compared to the same month last year.

According to figures provided by the Jerusalem Development Authority, the capital, which is visited by 80 percent of Israel’s tourists, saw 12 percent fewer foreign tourists during and after the fighting, with a 10 percent drop in the hotel occupancy rate. Nahmias said the effect of the war could be felt as far ahead as January and February, due to the slowdown in reservations experienced in the summer months.

Among hotels and tour operators, the situation sometimes looked even worse. Tawil said occupancy at the Manger Square Hotel dropped 80 percent during Protective Edge, while at the Ecce Homo there were just two guests in August. Andreatta, head the Vatican pilgrim’s office, said that 4,000 pilgrims, out of the 20,000-25,000 the organization brings each year to the Holy Land, canceled their trips due to the war.