NAZARETH (Jun. 12)
Quietly, almost desperately, Nazareth’s tourist industry announced the beginning of the tourism season last month.
“A selection of restaurants, attractions, nature, archaeology, mosques and, particularly, open hotels are awaiting the Israeli public in Nazareth,” said a press release issued by the town’s tourism association.
The emphasis was on attracting “the Israeli public.” But Israeli tourists — just like Christian pilgrims — are staying away from this picturesque town, which in the summer used to bustle with Israeli and foreign visitors.
Hotels are empty, restaurants are deserted, local attractions desolate.
For now, Nazarenes have all but given up on foreign tourists.
“We know that this year is basically dead as far as Christian tourism is concerned,” says Tarek Shehadeh, director of the local tourism association.
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he explains, is like a three-legged chair.
Christian tourists “absolutely must visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. If one leg drops, the whole chair collapses,” Shehadeh said.
When there is fighting around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the constant threat of suicide bombings in Jerusalem, there is little chance that pilgrims will come to the Holy Land just to visit Nazareth.
Na’im Mazawi, owner of a Christian souvenir shop in the town’s center, recently removed the wooden crosses and the Virgin Mary busts from his display to make room for colorful nonreligious ornaments — plastic flowers, chicken shaped candles and small porcelain teddy bears.
“If pilgrims don’t feel safe enough to go to where Jesus was born or buried, they won’t come to where he grew up,” Mazawi said.
Statistics recently issued by Israel’s Tourism Ministry support Mazawi’s assertion. In 2001, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians raged, foreign tourism in Nazareth fell by 90 percent, similar to the overall decline in tourism to Israel.
Unlike the rest of the country, though, where internal tourism rose by an average of 12 percent, Nazareth experienced an 80 percent drop.
Residents say the drop in foreign tourism hurts financially, but the drop in internal tourism hurts emotionally. They view it as an attempt by the Jewish public to punish Israeli Arabs for briefly and violently joining the Palestinian intifada in early October 2000.
Riots erupted in many Israeli Arab towns and villages, including Nazareth. Israeli police shot dead 13 rioters.
Other Arab locales also have suffered economic collapse as Jews stopped coming to auto repair shops, restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts in Arab towns.
Public expressions of remorse in the community are few, but many Arabs say they deeply regret having alienated their Jewish neighbors by allowing the riots to spin out of control.
“Actually, it is safer here than anywhere in Israel,” Shehadeh says. A Palestinian terrorist will not attack in an Arab town, he explains, and the residents of Nazareth will protect any tourist that comes to town.
Tourism professionals in town have put heavy — and quite successful — pressure on everyone in Nazareth to avoid demonstrations and rallies for the past year and a half.
“We need quiet and stability like oxygen,” Shehadeh says, “but we are finding that quiet in Nazareth is not enough. We need much more than that. We need peace.”
Shehadeh and his colleagues still remember the sweet taste of relative peace. In late September 2000, they hosted Nazareth’s annual food and fun festival.
“The town was packed,” Shehadeh recalls with a nostalgic smile.
“There were no vacancies in hotels,” including the 500 rooms in two new five-star hotels built as a part of the Nazareth 2000 development project to host the first papal visit to the Holy Land.
“There were Jews and Arabs in the streets, in restaurants,” he said. “We have never seen so many people here. Never.”
On Saturday, Sept. 30, there were probably more Jewish visitors than ever before in Nazareth. Sunday, which was supposed to be the grand finale, was canceled as riots broke out in Israeli Arab communities across the Galilee.
On Monday, there were police snipers on roofs overlooking the town’s main street, which looked like a war zone. By Monday evening, nine Israeli Arabs, including one from Nazareth, had been shot dead by police.
Since that day Nazareth has seen just a trickle of internal tourists. The few Jews who do come stop for a quick kebab at Dukhul Safadi’s legendary Diana’s restaurant, and leave in a hurry.
“Once, on Saturdays, the yuppies from Tel Aviv would line up and wait two hours for a table,” said Safadi, panning his arm across the empty tables of what many consider among the best grills in the country.
With no foreign tourism and no Israeli Jews in sight, Nazareth tourism professionals decided to target a much smaller market: Israeli Arabs. After all, there are more than a million of them, some pretty well-off financially. Why shouldn’t they come vacation in the largest Arab town in Israel?
The initiative ended in disappointment. A market survey found that 44 percent of Israeli Arabs named Eilat as their preferred vacation site in Israel. Another 22 percent preferred Jerusalem, while 18 percent preferred Tiberias.
Only 1 percent said they viewed Nazareth as an attractive tourist destination.
Following disastrous Christmases in 2000 and 2001, the local tourism industry decided it might just be time to try, again, to attract Israeli Jews. Thousands of colorful fliers were distributed.
“Only in Nazareth,” the fliers said, can you see a Baroque-style Italian church, a neo-Gothic French-style monastery, Turkish-style painted ceilings, excellent restaurants, magnificent views and a charming Middle Eastern market, all in one place.
“Davka now — Nazareth,” the flier said, using a Hebrew word to denote something counterintuitive.
Jews apparently were not impressed, however, and the campaign failed.
Nazareth tourism professionals now say that only a government initiative for reconciliation and tolerance among Arabs and Jews can bring some remedy to their ailing town.
The collapse of tourism, Nazareth’s chief industry, has caused the loss of approximately 1,000 jobs. For a town of 70,000 residents, the impact was immense: Nazareth suddenly joined the dozen or so towns and villages — all Arab – - that have the highest unemployment rates in Israel.
“The only thing that can save us now is a bold step by the government, a clear message to the Jewish public that enough is enough. That a place such as Nazareth can be and should be where peace between Jews and Arabs in the country should begin,” Mazawi says. “We are still dreaming of having another festival here, with Jews and Arabs enjoying life together.”