Unemployment has shrunk to 23 percent and hotel capacity is often around 100 percent these days, so things are looking up for Bethlehem says the head of the city's chamber of commerce and industry board - writes Judith Sudilovsky
"While some may gasp at the mention of 23 percent unemployment, when we have witnessed 45 percent unemployment, 23 percent is an improvement," said Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry chairperson, Samir Hazboun, at a recent meeting with journalists.
He told reporters that Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born, had celebrated its one millionth visitor of the year in November. This, Hazboun said, was the highest number in decades, and he hoped there would be at least 100 000 more visitors by the end of 2008.
"We witnessed similar numbers in the year 2000 in preparation for the millennium celebrations but after that there was a downturn [with the outbreak of the second intifada]. It started to improve in 2005," said Hazboun.
Yet, although visitors from India, Poland and Russia are expected to increase, the people of Bethlehem believe the current world economic crisis will hit them after Christmas, Hazboun noted.
Of the current visitors to Bethlehem, 76 percent are pilgrims, and while most tourists stay in the city for only about two hours, some who come for religious reasons spend the night in order to attend a church service or pray at the holy sites.
Bethlehem has a hotel capacity of 3000 rooms, Hazboun said, and the construction of three new hotels now being completed will add another 250 rooms. Still, he said this would not be enough to accommodate all the visitors who come to Bethlehem.
The city is increasingly perceived as a safe destination, Hazboun asserted. He said Bethlehem currently receives about 100 tour buses daily. He lamented, however, the border situation in Bethlehem that requires groups to go by bus through an Israeli-manned checkpoint, or to walk through a labyrinth-like checkpoint.
"The spiritual situation of Bethlehem … is important for Christians, and this city has to be open to Jerusalem without any impediments," Hazboun said. He said 27 percent of the 185 000 residents of the district, which includes the "Christian triangle" of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jalla and some smaller villages, are Christian. In Bethlehem proper, which has 31 000 residents, the figure is 45 percent.
Bethlehem faces a brain drain, with much of the educated population emigrating because of a lack of job opportunities. Still, an agreement has been signed with France to create an industrial zone that will have space for light industry and a training centre, said Hazboun.
"We want to encourage people to invest here, and are preparing a set of programmes for joint ventures," said Hazboun, who said the city was doing its "utmost" to attract local and international investors.
"We recognise it is a problem for some because they feel it is highly risky to invest here but we can offer insurance from the IFC [International Finance Corporation] of the World Bank on their investment."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]