Led by the Arch-Bishop of Paris Andre the 23rd, around six hundred French tourists visited the southern West Bank city of Bethlehem on Thursday. Led by the Arch-Bishop of Paris Andre the 23rd, around six hundred French tourists visited the southern West Bank city of Bethlehem on Thursday.
Upon arrival, the groups met with Bethlehem city officials and the mayors of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, as well as some local tourism industry representatives. According to local sources the groups were originally invited by the Israeli tourism ministry to encourage Christian pilgrimage to Israel.
The sources added that Israel put obstacles in the path of the group, to prevent them from visiting Palestinian areas; however the groups managed to avoid those restrictions and visit the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
IMEMC talked to Hanni Al Hayek, the mayor of Beit Sahour, who said that this visit will hopefully encourage Christian and international pilgrims to come to Palestine, and will help to revive the Bethlehem area, which relies heavily on tourism.
Al Hayek added that the Palestinian ministry of tourism should do more to encourage and revive the Palestinian tourist industry. He added that the three municipalities in the Bethlehem area have already initiated plans to revive tourism locally.
Since 200, the cities of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala have been under siege by the Israeli army which makes it very difficult for tourists to enter the city. As a result the sophisticated tourism infrastructure in the area has seen very little business in the past six years, causing severe difficulties for the many residents who rely on tourism for their income.
Moreover, Israeli forces have damaged holy sites during several invasions of the Bethlehem district, including ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ in 2002 when more than two hundred Israeli army tanks rolled into the city and laid the Nativity Church under siege for more than forty days.
During this forty day siege the church was heavily bombed causing extreme damage to the outside and internal structure. A nearby historic mosque was also burned to the ground during this time.
Bethlehem district municipalities hope that their new initiatives will promote the ailing tourism industry, despite the continuing restrictions imposed by the Israeli government.