Drawn to the Holy Land’s biblical sites, Christian tourists make up over half of all tourists to Israel, compared with the 20 percent that are Jews.
Yet Israel is considering making it harder for tourists to visit parts of the West Bank, which could mean Christian tourists would struggle to visit Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.
“Not to go to Bethlehem? It’s part and parcel of the Christian programs,” said Hani Abu Dayyeh, the owner of the Near East Tour Agency in Jerusalem, which caters mainly to Christian tourists. Such a move would “definitely” hurt Christian tourism to Israel, he said.
In late April, the Interior Ministry ordered several tour companies to stop taking tourists to the West Bank, but then temporarily backtracked on this after the tour companies protested, reported Haaretz.
According to Haaretz, the original order referred specifically to areas of the West Bank under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction, including Bethlehem, making it impossible for tourists to stay overnight at Bethlehem hotels.
The Interior Ministry is reportedly reviewing the order and plans to issue new directives. The Ministry did not respond to the Forward’s request for clarification.
The Tourism Ministry meanwhile said that it invests resources into facilitating tourism to Bethlehem so that pilgrims feel welcomed in the Holy Land. It would not comment on the pending directives.
Bethlehem is a less expensive option than Jerusalem for lodging, making it a draw for Eastern European and Asian tourists on a budget, Abu Dayyeh said.
He said that tourism to Bethlehem is actually a boon for Israel. According to his calculations, 86 cents of every dollar spent in Bethlehem goes back to Israel, because the Palestinian economy is so heavily dependent on Israeli products.
“It’s a major loss to the Israeli economy if they insist on doing something as silly as this,” he said.
But Bethlehem isn’t the only West Bank site that appeals to Christians. Increasingly, Jewish settlers are marketing West Bank holy sites to Christian tourists, and specifically Evangelicals who sympathize with the settlers’ bible-based claims to the land.
Assaf Lessner, the head of marketing of Binyamin Tourism in the West Bank, said that when he first heard about the ban on West Bank travel he sought clarification from the government and learned that it didn’t apply to Jewish settlements under Israeli jurisdiction.
At Shiloh, a West Bank settlement thought to be the site of an ancient biblical tent sanctuary, a new tourism center beckons visitors with artifacts and a movie with actors playing bible characters.
Eliana Passentin, a guide to an archaeological dig in Shiloh, said she wasn’t concerned about the possibility of a ban on Bethlehem overnights deterring tourists from visiting Shiloh, which she said draws 100,000 tourists per year.
“I don’t think it’s going to affect us in any way,” she said. “The people who are going to tour are coming because they are excited by the Bible, by the view and they enjoy meeting the people. I don’t think anything is going to stop them.”
She said that the evangelical Christian tourists who come to Shiloh don’t usually make a distinction between Israel and the West Bank, seeing the land through the lens of the bible, rather than modern politics.
“I don’t think anyone is going to care” if they can’t sleep in Bethlehem, she said of tourists to settlements.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.