He wants another checkpoint?

Dr. Samir Hazboun, Director of the Chamber of Commerce of Bethlehem — the city where Jesus is believed to have been born, which is now locked in behind a massive Wall constructed by the Israeli Military — recently suggested adding another checkpoint into the town, for tourists. The Jerusalem Post reported that Dr. Hazboun suggested: “If we give tourists a special checkpoint it will make things easier for them and the tourism will be of mutual benefit to both sides [the PA and Israel]”.

Main checkpoint into Bethlehem - photo by Rev. Julie Rowe

Photo by Reverend Julie Rowe

The JPost added that “Some Bethlehem residents have accused Israel of discouraging tourists from entering the city, but Rafi Ben-Hur, senior deputy director-general of the Israeli Tourism Ministry, insists this is not true. ‘While the situation is safe we are actively encouraging Christian tourists, through travel agents, to go and visit the town. We see Christians as a bridge for peace between our two communities’, he says. The ministry has also recently opened a tourism office at Rachel’s Crossing, near Rachel’s Tomb, the aim of which is to quicken the passage of tour coaches through the checkpoint by exempting them from searches. It has even introduced a policy of handing out candy to Christian pilgrims”.

The JPost continues: “Tourists choose to travel with tour companies rather than wander the town individually for several reasons. The pilgrims often travel in groups along with a pastor, so that they can pray together. And the town is still commonly perceived to be unsafe and tour companies claim to provide people with protection. That tourists can easily feel intimidated is understandable. Outside Giacaman’s shop, in full view of tourists, a commotion breaks out as armed Fatah security men, some masked, others beating the sides of their jeeps with batons, try to push their way through traffic. But Giacaman says that the tour companies take advantage of people’s fears by strictly controlling where they can and cannot go, including where they can eat and shop, thus depriving small businesses like his of a fair share of the profit. Taxi drivers have also been feeling the pinch. At Rachel’s Crossing, drivers anxiously wait to take visitors down into the city. When a foreign face approaches from the turnstile, a throng of five or six drivers gather round, angling for a deal. Tourists present good income potential as they are normally willing to pay as much as double the local rate for a ride. But such opportunities are few and far between” … This JPost article about Bethlehem and tourism is here.

Seth Freedman, who writes from Jerusalem for The Guardian’s Comment is Free, said in a recent article that “Britain’s former prime minister … announced four projects designed to kickstart the ailing Palestinian economy. One of the plans was to revive the tourism industry in Bethlehem, by easing the restrictions on entering the city and making the town centre more appealing to sightseers …
After making my way through the bottleneck of the checkpoint – where two long queues on either side of the border converged on one harassed-looking teenaged soldier – I headed for the dilapidated Aida refugee camp on the edge of the city. Once there, I went to meet Abdel Fattah Abu-Srour, the head of the Al-Rowwad Theatre Centre who had left such an indelible impression on me when I first interviewed him in May … He said that he was doubtful that any increase in tourism would have much effect on the Bethlehem economy, unless the fundamental way in which tourists visited the town changed significantly. ‘At present, the buses bring the groups in, they visit the Church [of the Nativity], jump back on their bus and are gone’, he said. ‘That means that they don’t sleep here, so the hotels are empty, as are the restaurants, and none of their tourist money filters down to the street. They just use Bethlehem as a passageway’. A Palestinian policeman I spoke to outside the Church of the Nativity was equally unenthusiastic about Blair’s proposals. Shivering in his bomber jacket and felt beret, he said that ‘I don’t know what it is he wants to do here, but I do know that you shouldn’t trust what you read in the media. We’ve heard nothing about spending on the tourist industry – they talk about putting money in, but the tourist policemen sleep with the mice’. He wasn’t exaggerating, he said – ‘we sleep in an underground building, with rats everywhere, and we don’t even have enough money for guns’, he complained, patting his waistband where his pistol was conspicuous by its absence. ‘We didn’t get our salaries for 15 months and even when we did finally get paid, they didn’t cover the debts we’d accumulated during that time’. Where did that leave him? ‘I’ve got five kids – and no cash’ he replied flatly … Whether or not Tony Blair’s tourism drive manages to inject life back into Bethlehem’s collapsed economy, the main obstacle to financial health is the far more significant problem of the wall and the checkpoints. ‘Most people can’t even leave their own cities anymore’, Abdel Fattah told me, ‘and that has a devastating effect on their ability to find work’. The prime minister of the Palestinian authority, Salam Fayyad, said the same thing when unveiling Blair’s plans, stating that the private sector wouldn’t recover until roadblocks were lifted to permit the passage of goods and people. And, until that happens, Tony Blair’s idealistic proposals seem like nothing more than window-dressing, given that the West Bank’s problems are far worse than a mere dearth of tourists in Bethlehem. ‘Peace be with you’ reads the cynically placed Israeli tourism ministry billboard where tour buses pass through the security wall to enter Bethlehem. But, until that very same wall is opened up just as freely to the Palestinian people, then the last thing that will be bestowed on the people is peace – and the situation will continue to deteriorate as steadily as before”. This article can be seen here.

Now, I’ve got to find the article in which I read recently of scams by taxi drivers in Bethlehem to intimidate tourists into spending more money — the taxi drivers pick the tourists up at the checkpoint and tell them it will cost 20 shekels ($5.00) to be driven to Manger Square at the center of town, where they can find the Church of the Nativity. But, instead, the taxi drivers take the tourists waaayy out of town, and tell them it will cost them 100 shekels to get back into town…

There is also a lot of aggressive panhandling in the center of town, and a lot of lousy cheap merchandise being forced on tourists — which some of them nevertheless seem happy to buy.

A whole re-think, and re-education of people working in the tourism business, might also help stimulate better and longer interactions between tourists and Bethlehem merchants and vendors…

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