Israel Bans Tour Groups From Staying in West Bank, Then Backtracks

Tour agencies are awaiting clarification, fearing such a directive would hurt Christian groups that spend the night in Bethlehem

Gili Melnitcki
Gili Melnitcki
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A woman surrounded by others prays inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Worshippers at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Christian tour groups often stay overnight in the West Bank town. Credit: Majdi Mohammed / AP
Gili Melnitcki
Gili Melnitcki

The Interior Ministry instructed several tour companies not to take groups of foreign tourists into the West Bank, and then temporarily retracted the order in the face of criticism.

Several Israeli travel agencies that deal with foreign tourists reported receiving a letter from the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority this week, instructing them to commit not to take tourists to the Palestinian Authority effective May 15. This would mean that tourists would not be able to spend the night in Bethlehem.

However, the ministry froze the order. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri is expected to examine the matter and publish a clarification within a few days.

The letter, signed by the Border Control Department of the Population and Immigration Authority, states that every request to invite a tour group to Israel must by accompanied by a form undertaking not to take the groups into Palestinian territory, specifically for overnight stays in Bethlehem. The letter states that without this form, requests will not be processed.

The population authority stated that the nature of the directive was not final, and therefore it had been frozen. However, a clarification or cancellation has not yet been published. It’s also not clear which authority would be responsible for enforcement.

The directive apparently stems from security considerations, and various sources said that Shin Bet security service officials were involved in drafting it, given previous incidents and suspicions that potential terrorists were traveling with groups of tourists.

The form relates primarily to groups of Christian tourists that visit Israel who also spend nights in Bethlehem, and not individual tourists, who are not required to receive entry permits in advance.

The letter from the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority.

Many groups who come to see the Christian religious sites choose to stay overnight in Bethlehem due to the high cost of lodging in Jerusalem.

“Even though it’s not clear how this would be implemented, the meaning of a letter like this is the end of incoming tourism from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and eastern European countries like Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine,” said a travel agent who has been in the field for more than 20 years. All the tourists who visit Israel and sleep in Bethlehem are doing that primarily to reduce costs.”

He added that the population authority had included a clarification stating that the groups are permitted to visit Bethlehem, and are only being blocked from spending the night there. He stated that it would appear that the directive would only be enforced with groups of tourists who are required to receive entry visas in advance — from India, China and Indonesia. There has been a significant increase in tourism from these countries over the past few years, thanks to advertising efforts by the Tourism Ministry.

“If this takes effect, then groups of tourists that are looking for a down-to-earth vacation in Israel while visiting religious sites will have trouble paying the prices, and will stop coming. The diplomatic aspect will be even more problematic,” said Yehuda Leibovitz, who markets tours to groups.

If Israel is perceived as limiting tourism to Palestinian areas and blocking groups from spending the night there, that could harm coexistence, he said.

If the directive does take effect, industry sources say they doubt that the Civil Administration in the West Bank and the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories will be sufficiently prepared to start issuing entry permits for tour groups in advance, which may entirely halt tourist stays in Bethlehem.

An estimated 1 million tourist nights are spent in Bethlehem every year, including overnights by independent travelers.

Yossi Fatal, head of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Organization, called the development “a serious event for the sector.” Tour directors are waiting to receive the final directive in order to decide how to respond, he said.

“This isn’t just something technical; it’s a meaningful change in terms of managing tour groups,” he said.

Leibovitz pointed out that a significant number of hotels have been built in Bethlehem over the last few years, and that the city has more than doubled its number of hotel rooms. Most are 3-star hotels that charge about $22 to $25 per person a night, which is 25% to 50% of what a three-star hotel in Jerusalem costs.

“It’s hard to compete with this,” he said.

Israeli tourism sources said that the current state of things, where tourists come to Israel but spend the night in Bethlehem, means that the Israeli tourism sector isn’t profiting, and therefore the directive could benefit Israel’s hotels and its tourism sector as a whole.

Other say that the ban could slice into the number of incoming tourists if the price of hotel stays in Jerusalem does not drop. Currently, tourists who visit Israel can receive an immediate entry permit into the West Bank at border crossings and road blocks. This allows them to spend the night there. However, sector sources say that there is no one checking permits at the entrance to Bethlehem.

The combination of the open skies policy and the new low-cost airlines servicing Israel, along with the low rates of Bethlehem hotels, has increased the flow of tourists, said a travel agent. Now, the directive threatens to halt that, said the source.

“It will reduce trust in Israel,” said the source. “Economic peace contributes to security peace, and incoming tourism is built on free movement, including in the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority. There are many Christian tourist groups that choose to spend the night there, and they’re an integral part of this market.”

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