At the Joint Services Council for Tourism Development in Bethlehem, we work in close partnership with our founding municipalities to develop tourism services and promote local tourist destinations in Bethlehem – historically one of the first Palestinian destinations to welcome international visitors.
The world of tourism is perpetually changing, and the pilgrims of days long gone are today’s modern travelers who visit our region for spiritual purposes but who also combine their stay with cultural, geopolitical, and natural tourism.
Our role is to accompany both the tourists and the local municipalities in adapting to this very fast-changing market by working to meet the expectations of visitors and helping to ensure that visitors have an enjoyable experience.
Local towns have been receiving travelers since before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Given that Palestine lies along the path of many historical trade routes, traveling merchants would find a khan to stay in for the night. After the construction of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem became a primary attraction point for new Christians, and ever since, our people have never stopped welcoming pilgrims into our towns. This has created a tradition of hospitality and awareness that we are lucky to have and should nurture and cherish.
The history of Bethlehem as a touristic destination has also always contributed to the development of infrastructure geared towards welcoming tourists in nearby cities and towns. Many of the religious sites, cultural sites, and hospitality properties are easily accessible to visitors both by vehicle and on foot, and include safe parking areas and practical information to facilitate the visits.
Visitors to religious sites will often find a member of the clergy happy to explain the richness and significance of the site or a licensed Palestinian guide ready to offer a more formal tour.
Another dimension of the public role is the work that municipalities do at all levels to make the cities and towns hospitable for visitors. The first role of local public organizations is to keep the roads and the vicinity of the sites in good condition. In addition, behind the scenes, the municipality health teams work round the clock to maintain health standards in all restaurants and hotels in the area. The teams work together with the specialized institutions to check and help raise the standards of the end service being offered to our visitors and tourists.
A main component in a tourism destination is transportation. The Bethlehem area offers efficient transportation options that link us with all other Palestinian cities, primarily Jerusalem. Despite the occupation measures and the segregation Wall, the area’s transport system still serves the cities of Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jericho, and Hebron with internal public transport lines to touristic places such as Battir, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Al-Khader, Al-Obeidiyeh, and Artas.
The public transport network is accompanied by private transportation options. At the public-sector level, our role is to ensure that private transport is maintained within recognized standards of safety on the roads and that parking stations are available and clearly identified to facilitate their use by tourists and locals. Parking for tour buses is available in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. This efficient combination of transport options allows visitors to use the Bethlehem area as a tourism hub from which they can visit other Palestinian towns and cities.
Freely available tourism information is crucial to ensuring vibrant and sustained tourism, and while the city of Bethlehem is home to many important attractions, the challenge is to create a program for visitors before they even arrive. Enjoy Bethlehem (www.enjoybethlehem.com) was launched in order to allow all visitors, local and international, whether in Palestine or still in their home countries, to use our online site to gather historical and cultural information, see the locations and the distances between them, and build a personalized program.
Local authorities lead projects to develop the area’s tourism potential, and we can see that municipal council members are engaged today on multiple tracks for the future. Bethlehem Municipality, in conjunction with the Russian government, is developing a massive renovation plan for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Star Street. Historically the entranceway for pilgrims coming to the city to visit the Church of the Nativity, Star Street is presently being rehabilitated in order to regain its historical role. The municipality has also engaged in a partnership with the Paris municipality to develop a new mobility plan and an inclusive development plan for Manger Square.
Beit Jala Municipality has focused its efforts on reviving Al-Sahel Street through establishing a concentration of restaurant options for both locals and tourists. In addition, it has created the Old City Trail, known as the Saint Nicholas Trail, as part of the municipal vision.
Beit Sahour has been developing alternative tourism options in partnership with local nongovernmental organizations to increase the length of stay of visitors and contribute to closer encounters through home stays. The municipality has worked to encourage and develop the production of local handicrafts.
Battir’s municipality is working with governmental and nongovernmental institutions to implement the protection plan for the UNESCO World Heritage Site and to remove it from the list of endangered sites. Efforts are being made to develop more tourism trails around the site in order to enhance the ecotourism potential of the area.
Other municipalities in our area are developing tourism products and services that will join together to make of our tourism hub a smoother, more visitor-friendly destination by enhancing the public services on offer.