JERUSALEM (Dec. 10)
Christmas is less than two weeks away, but both Israel and the Palestinian Authority already are looking ahead four years.
Travel experts estimate that anywhere from 3.5 million to 5 million visitors will descend on the region during the year 2000. Last year, a record 2.5 million tourists came to the area.
Israeli and Palestinian officials are in close contact with the Vatican and other Christian denominations, which are encouraging their faithful to visit the Holy Land during the millennium.
According to some Catholics, Pope John Paul VI may make his first-ever visit to Jerusalem that year.
Israel and the Palestinians are planning a joint marketing campaign in the coming year designed to woo not only Christian pilgrims, but visitors of all faiths.
With so many pilgrims expected for the Year 2000 festivities, the question is whether Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which now has jurisdiction over holy places in Bethlehem and Jericho, will be able to accommodate the anticipated crush of visitors.
Shabtai Shai, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, said it would not be easy.
“This is a celebration of the Christian world,” he said, so the program “should be decided by the various churches. What we can do is facilitate and prepare the country’s infrastructure.”
Shai said another 20,000 hotel rooms will be built in Israel by the year 2000. There are now some 35,000 rooms.
Yet these additional rooms will not suffice if everyone decides to visit at one time.
“These aren’t the Olympic Games,” Shai said. “Our hope is that pilgrims will come throughout the year, and not just around Christmas and Easter.”
Shai said the additional hotel rooms across the country are not intended only for Christian pilgrims.
“We are gearing up for Israel’s 50th anniversary in two years’ time, and only then for the year 2000,” he said.
The Palestinians, too, are busy building hotel rooms, though at a slower pace.
“Given the current political climate, finding investors for the tourism sector has been difficult,” said an eastern Jerusalem hotelier who declined to give his name.
Accommodations are not the only concern among those planning for the influx of visitors during the millennium.
“This is a very small country,” said Jonathan Harpaz, director of the Jerusalem Hotel Association.
“If even 3.5 million tourists arrive, thousands more tour buses will be on the road,” he said. “You know how crowded the streets of Jerusalem are right now. How can we make room for more vehicles?” Harpaz also noted that holy sites “can accommodate only so many people at any one time.”
Despite these problems, people who work in tourism say they would gladly trade the current situation with the projected overflow at the turn of the century.
Walking around the streets of Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem, it is clear that tourism is suffering. Instead of the bustling activity usually evident around holiday time, many restaurants and stores are barely half full.
According to both Israeli and Palestinian officials, the number of holiday visitors could be down by as much as 20 percent, compared with the same period last year.
The officials, who are working together to ensure that Christmas festivities are a success, acknowledge that terrorist attacks and other violent incidents that occurred earlier this year have scared away many travelers.
“We have less holiday reservations than we had hoped for,” Shai said.
The tourism industry has been depressed since the spring, after a series of suicide terrorist attacks rocked Israel in February and March.
The cross-border fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in April, and September’s bloody riots in the West Bank and Gaza Strip also hurt tourism, Shai said.
“Since tourists plan their trips to Israel several months in advance, this unrest has hurt our Christmas season,” he said.
Shai, clearly concerned by the lack of Christmas business, particularly because non-pilgrims tend to stay away during Israel’s chilly, rainy winter, also said the disappointing statistics must be put into perspective.
“Thanks to a very strong January and February, and the fact that 1995 was a record year to begin with, the overall drop in tourism is not catastrophic.”
Bajis Ismail, director general of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, agreed that “things are not as we had hoped.”
“Tourists are taking a wait-and-see attitude. If not this year, then next,” he said.
Those who rely on tourism say they simply cannot wait.
“I’ve had many, many cancellations,” said Hissam Mussallam, an Arab tour guide who specializes in Christian tourism. “You can’t make a living like this.”
Yeshiyahu Boteach, the owner of a well-positioned souvenir shop in the heart of downtown Jerusalem, said, “Tourists, especially Jews, think the country is unsafe and have decided not to come.”
Looking out toward the street, where Israeli shoppers skirt raindrops, Boteach added, “Anyone can see that it’s safe here, that nothing is happening.
“People have to realize that, God forbid, bad things can happen anywhere, not just in Israel. Anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding himself.”