“All I want for Christmas is Justice”, the slogan of this year's Christmas campaign of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism goes. It is the 47th year that Palestinian Christians are commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ under Israeli occupation.
“Every year we say our message to the whole world during Christmas, which is the message of peace, of course. This is the land of peace, this is the birthplace of the king of peace, our Lord Jesus Christ”, the Palestinian Minister of Tourism, Rula Maayah, says. For Christians all over the world, Bethlehem holds immense theological significance, making it an important destination for pilgrims all year long.
But especially during the winter holidays, tourist inflow multiples. “As the ministry of tourism, we focus a lot on this event, because the highest number of tourists who visit Palestine is during Christmas”, Maayah explains. Bethlehem's tourist-dependent economy, as 20 percent of its population is employed in this industry, has been able to expand its tourism sector for the last couple of years. In 2012, for instance, Palestine experienced an increase of 18 percent in terms of number of visitors coming to the West Bank, while overnight stays increased by 25 percent. A jump that Palestine was not only able to maintain throughout 2013, but even expand by five to six percent.
What tourists and pilgrims who come to Palestine often don't realise, however, is the amount of constraints the Israeli occupation has put on Bethlehem's tourist economy. “This year  was supposed to be one of the best years in tourism. In the first half of the year we had an increase of 37 percent in terms of accommodation, which was the highest ever”, Maayah says, adding: “but of course because of the Israeli aggression on Gaza this summer, there was a drop in number of tourists coming to Palestine.” During the aggression itself Palestine registered a breakdown of tourism of about 60 percent, which remained at 30 percent in September.
The military offense in Gaza and other political tensions are not the sole factors that repress Bethlehem's otherwise booming potential in the tourism sector. “We have many problems because of the occupation. The most important thing is that they are controlling the boarders, we don't have airports, they are controlling area C, they are controlling Jerusalem. This very much affects tourism”, Maayah remarks. All these aspects of occupation leave a lot of controlling power of tourist movement to the Israeli administration.
“Many tourists that come these days [during the holidays] come from the Israeli side, and believe the propaganda, that behind the wall, which means West Bank, it's very dangerous”, Mike Siriani, a souvenir shop owner in Bethlehem, says. Because tourists and pilgrims have to travel to the West Bank via Israel, they often choose to book with Israeli companies to chaperone them during their short stay in Bethlehem.
Palestinian tour guides are not the only ones hindered from welcoming big tourist groups to Bethlehem. Small businesses, such as souvenir shops or restaurants, are also being restricted in their selling power, since often touring companies have commission agreements with a few certain places in Bethlehem. Furthermore, a far more profound problem is that these large numbers of tourists will not get a chance to get to know the Palestinian case. “That's actually why we say we want tourists to stay in Palestine. Because when they come for a couple of hours, buy stuff and then leave, they will know nothing about the situation in Palestine and the Palestinians”, Maayah explains. Siriani agrees with Maayah: “Bethlehem is not only the Nativity Church. Nativity Church is nice and people come to pray, but they should meet the people of Bethlehem. It would be good to take those tourists to one of the three refugee camps in Bethlehem. They should know why there are refugees until now, and what their real story is. Nobody talks about us. But this is a part of Bethlehem.”
Tackling the erroneous image of a dangerous Palestine is one of the ministry's main aims, because it is a determining factor in increasing the number of tourists. “During the last years we were able to convince tourists that Palestine is safe. There are infrastructures in Palestine that could accommodate all these tourists. And there was never any single problems with tourists in the past, which means that Palestinians love to receive tourists from all over the world”, Maayah explains.
Even with all the difficulties imposed by the occupation, Maayah stays optimistic. Up until the aggression on Gaza, Bethlehem's hotels reported a 200 percent overbooking.On top of that Palestine still maintained a nine percent increase in overnight stays. “We are happy this sector is improving, but still if occupation ends this means a totally different thing. We will not be talking about two or three millions of tourists, we would be talking about tens of millions coming to Palestine each year”, Maayah says, adding: “Every year we hope that next year we will celebrate Christmas without the occupation. Hopefully next year we will do so.”