Bethlehem Hotels Lure Pilgrims in Search of a Bargain

Palestinian hotel official denies the city is taking tourism revenue away from Jerusalem.

AP

Israeli hotels, mainly those in Jerusalem, are losing potential guests to their rivals in Bethlehem because their rates are so high. About a third of all visitors to Israel – some 1.2 million tourists – travel to the West Bank city where the New Testament says Jesus was born, and about 20% of them end up staying at least one night in a local hotel.

George Abu-Aita, chairman of the Bethlehem Hotels Association, said the reason is that Jerusalem hotels charge very high room rates. “If tourists didn’t have the option of staying in Bethlehem at lower prices, they wouldn’t come to Israel at all,” he said. “Why should they come with rates like that? A two-week vacation in [the Egyptian resort of] Sharm el-Sheikh, including airfare, costs less than four or five nights in Israel.”

A city of 25,000, Bethlehem is just eight kilometers (five miles) south of Jerusalem. To get there, however, tourists have to pass through Israel’s separation barrier and checkpoints, which makes the trip long and unpleasant.

In fact, a survey of rates posted on Booking.com shows that a visitor making reservations on his or her own can get a room in a four-star hotel in Bethlehem for 270 shekels ($70) a night, including breakfast. In West Jerusalem rates are much higher, in many cases starting at 500 shekels ($130) a night.

Booking.com lists 20 hotels and hostels in Bethlehem, although Abu-Aita says the number is closer to 35 – offering a total of 4,000 or so rooms. He said the number of rooms in the city had grown by about 25% in the last four years, including the Manger Square Hotel and the Ararat Hotel. He said another two properties were likely to open in 2016 and 2017, adding another 100 to 250 rooms.

“From the viewpoint of the Christian tourist, the Holy Land includes Bethlehem,” said Amir Halevi, director general of the Israeli Tourism Ministry. “We and the Palestinians have a shared interest to create the best tourism experience, because when tourism prospers, the two sides benefit economically.”

Despite that, said Abu-Aita, who spoke at the Futourism.org conference in Tel Aviv yesterday, overnight stays at Bethlehem hotels have not grown.

“I keep hearing people say that one of the reasons for the decline in tourist overnight stays in Israel is that these tourists come to Israel but choose to sleep in Bethlehem, but it’s not true,” he said. “There’s been no increase in the number of overnight stays in Bethlehem in recent years. I don’t see any competition between hotels in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, because there’s such a big difference in room rates.”

Abu-Aita said that without the availability of low-cost hotels in Bethlehem and Nazareth – a mostly Arab city in Israel where the New Testament says Jesus spent his childhood – many Christian pilgrims wouldn’t come to Israel at all. Their aim is to see as many holy sites as possible on a limited budget, so prefer to be close by and are ready to sacrifice luxury for cost, he noted.

The major exception to the rule is U.S. tourists, he said. While the United States is the single biggest source of tourists to Israel, accounting for some 622,000 out of the 3.3 million who traveled to Israel last year, few of them come to Bethlehem. “The percentage of Americans who come to us is in the single percentage points,” Abu-Aita said.

Russian tourism, which was significant in 2013, fell last year, as it did to Israel, because of the country’s economic crisis and the collapse of the ruble, which makes traveling more expensive.

Operation Protective Edge, the 50-day war Israel fought with Hamas in the Gaza Strip over the summer, hit Bethlehem hotels as well as Israeli ones. Many hotels were empty for days at a time and a few closed, Abu-Aita said.

Israeli figures show the number of foreign tourists crossing into Bethlehem last July while the war raged fell to 54,000, down from 72,400 the previous year. In August, the number dropped to about 35,000.

Palestinian hotels adopted a star-based rating system in 2013, with financial help from USAID. About half the hotels have received a rating, and the rest should get them by the end of this year, said Abu-Aita. Unlike the Israeli rating system, which is voluntary, Palestinian hotels must sign up.

For its part, Israel says it upgraded the crossing point to Bethlehem near the site of Rachel’s Tomb last year, investing 300,000 shekels ahead of the visit of Pope Francis.