The LA Times and the Grinch Who Stole Bethlehem Tourism

Media coverage of Christmas festivities and difficulties in Bethlehem is an annual affair, and this year was no exception. A record number of tourists visited the city this holiday season, and Bethlehem hotels are booked to capacity, but Edmund Sanders of the Los Angeles Times still finds fault with Israel. The reason, he says, in his Dec. 20 article (“This Holy Land battle focuses on tourists’ wallets”) is as follows:

Most visitors to the Holy Land arrive by air in Israel and join Israeli-led tours. So even when pilgrims visit Palestinian territory, local businesses do not necessarily profit. . . .

. . . . Bethlehem’s 250-room Intercontinental Hotel, a former Arab mansion decked with poinsettias and garlands, is fully booked the last two weeks of December. The rest of the year, occupany hovers around 60%, even though the amenities are comparable to those at Israeli hotels a few miles away in Jerusalem — and room rates are lower.

The reason, hotel officials say, is that Israeli tourism companies rarely direct visitors to Bethlehem unless Jerusalem hotels are sold out.

Statistic Without Context Misleads
Sanders misleads readers by throwing out a lone statistic without providing any comparative figure. As quoted above, he notes that the occupany rate in Bethlehem hotels in the non-Christmas season “hovers around 60%, even though the amenities are comparable to those at Israeli hotels a few miles away in Jerusalem — and room rates are lower.” By failing to also provide Jerusalem’s occupancy rate throughout the year, Sanders’ citation of the figure for Bethlehem — 60 percent — gives the false impression that Bethlehem hotels suffer greatly in comparison to those in Jerusalem. In fact, this is not the case. At 66 percent, Jerusalem’s year-round hotel occupany rate is hardly higher than Bethlehem’s (Ami Federmann, president of Israel Hotel Association). The fact that Bethlehem’s hotel occupancy rate is nearly identical to Jerusalem’s belies Sanders’ underlying premise that Bethlehem’s local tourism is suffering in comparison to Jerusalem’s.
Moreover, the implied charge that Israeli tourism operators should be promoting Palestinian tourism is bizarre, even strained, and represents a schizophrenic Palestinian attitude. On the one hand, Palestinians apply to the United Nations to be accepted as a member nation. On the other, they hold Israel responsible for promoting Palestinian tourism.

Following acceptance to UNESCO as a member state, PA official Yasser Abed-Rabbo was quoted in the Los Angeles Times that the vote “means that the majority of the world supports Palestinians’ right to become an independent state and a member of the international community.” What independent state holds another country responsible for its tourism? Indeed, if Palestinians are not ready to assume responsibility for their own tourism, are they ready to be an independent state?

In addition, Sanders seems to hold Israel responsible not only for not promoting Palestinian tourism, but also for “cutting” Palestinians out of the Christian pilgrim market:

Israel has spent millions of dollars refurbishing Christian sites in Israel and trying to create new ones, such as the recently launched “Gospel Trail,” which allows hikers, bikers and motorists to retrace what may have been Jesus’ path through the Galillee region. . . .

The Tourism Ministry is also promoting a Christmas Eve alternative to Bethlehem — which is under control of the Palestinian Authority — by inviting pilgrims and foreign diplomats to the Israeli city of Nazareth to enjoy a Christmas market, parade, fireworks display and jolly Santa Claus for the kids.

Palestinians complain that they are being cut out of a market they once dominated. Palestinian tourism officials say Israel is discouraging visits to areas administered by the Palestinian Authority and is promoting attractions in other parts of the West Bank, such as the baptismal site at the Jordan River.

“We have more sites on our side, and Israel is using them to develop their own tourism, leaving us with a smaller piece of the pie,” said Palestinian Authority Tourism Minister Kholoud Daibes, contending that Israel collects 90% of pilgrim-related revenue. “They are promoting occupied territory as part of Israel.”

But if Israel is now enjoying a larger slice of the pie, it’s not because the Jewish state is “cutting out” the Palestinians. Rather, it’s because Israel has been aggressively developing its market for Christian tourism in places like the northern Galilee, Nazareth and West Bank sites still under Israeli control, as stated by Sanders, and the Palestinians have apparently not been keeping pace.

Unreported: Most Bethlehem Visitors Spend the Night

Elsewhere, Sanders’ selective reporting paints a misleadlingly bleak picture of Bethlehem’s hotel industry. He writes:

The third-generation woodcarver, who sells handmade likenesses of baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary, sees as many as 200 tour buses arrive every day from Israel to visit the Church of the Nativity, just a few steps from his store.

But the tourists are escorted directly from the bus to the church and back again. They’re rarely given time to browse the shops nearby and almost never spend the night in Bethlehem.

In addition, the article implies that the vast majority of tourists in Bethlehem arrive via Israeli operators:

“The biggest operators are Israeli and all the traffic starts at Ben Gurion airport, so it’s an Israeli-controlle d gate,” said Muhusen Shweiki, the Intercontinental’s office manager.

While Israeli-run tour groups do not spend the night, Sanders neglects to mention most tourists to Bethlehem do spend the night. A 2011 study carried out by Jafar Subhi Suleiman and Badaruddin Mohamed, of the Universiti Sains Malaysia, found that out 198 international tourists in Bethlehem who responded to their questionnaire in the summer of 2008, the majority — 60 percent — stayed overnight. More specifically, 37 percent spent more than five days in the city, and 23 percent stayed for two to four days. In contrast, 40 percent of the tourists did not stay overnight. Thus, Sanders ignores the majority of tourists in Bethlehem who come to the city without participating in an Israeli-run tour. By neglecting the majority of tourists who do sleep over in the city, Sanders falsely skews the story.

Furthermore, an account from a recent participant of an Israeli-run tour belies the claim that tourists on these groups are not given the opportunity to patronize local vendors. Renee Schwartz wrote in a Dec. 25 letter published in the Los Angeles Times:

In February I traveled with friends to Israel and added an optional excursion to Bethlehem. At the border, we were transferred from our Israeli tour bus to one owned and operated by Palestinians.

Our group of 20 was then taken to a restaurant for an excellent lunch, followed by an extended visit to a Christian woodcarving store where many in the group bought items to take to our next stop, the Church of the Nativity. Several of us bought scarves and flutes from vendors in the streets. Though we did not stay at the hotels, we did leave money behind.

That’s more good news for the local Palestinian economy, but not such great news for those stuck in the blame Israel narrative.

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