Israel May Punish Travel Agencies Whose Clients Stay in Bethlehem

Travel agents say Tourism Ministry official said they could lose marketing budgets, but ministry denies statements attributed to him

AP

The Israeli Tourism Ministry is waging a battle against the phenomenon of foreign tourists staying in Bethlehem hotels rather than sleeping over in Jerusalem.

Travel agents who were at a meeting with the ministry’s director general understood that the ministry intends to cut grants allotted to travel agencies whose groups sleep over in the Palestinian Authority. The director general, Amir Halevy, however, denies making statements to that effect.

For years hotel managers and tour guides in Jerusalem have been worried about tourist groups visiting Jerusalem yet traveling to Bethlehem to spend the night. Accommodations in Bethlehem are significantly cheaper compared to Jerusalem. Crossing the checkpoint is relatively quick for tourists, so pilgrimage groups, mainly from countries like India and Nigeria, prefer Bethlehem over the capital.

Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association director Yossi Fattal said that there have been about one million sleepovers per year in Bethlehem in recent years, a large part of them by tourists spending most of their time in Jerusalem, primarily in Israel.

“Hotels in Bethlehem offer prices that are hard to compete with even in the third world,” says Fattal. “You are talking about $25-$50 per night, when in Jerusalem you’re talking about $100-$200 per night. It’s impossible competition.”

The problem was discussed in recent a meeting between Halevy and travel agency owners engaged in bringing tourists from Nigeria. According to some of the attendees, the director general made it clear that the ministry would explore the possibility of cutting marketing budgets (state grants to travel agents for marketing vacation packages to Israel) to agents who bring groups that stay in Bethlehem.

Recently, hoteliers proposed a tax on travelers staying in Bethlehem without staying within Israeli territory. According to them, Jordan levies a similar levy on anyone taking day trips in its territory without sleeping over in the country. The Finance Ministry rejected the proposal.

The Tourism Ministry commented: “During a meeting that was held between the Tourism Ministry direct general and tourism organizers specializing in the Nigerian market, a professional survey was given about the market’s situation and its potential. The director general did not make the statements attributed to him. It was agreed upon with the organizers that all subjects that were raised in the meeting would be examined by the relevant factors and would be dealt with speedily.”