Ancient Bethlehem’s Modern Challenges

As Christmas approaches, Jesus’s traditional birthplace is struggling with Chinese knockoffs, vanishing tourists, and a declining Christian population.

Nabil Giacaman stands in his father's souvenir shop near Bethlehem's Manger Square. (Debra Kamin)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Nabil Giacaman has worked in his father’s shop off of Bethlehem’s Manger Square for as long as he can remember. He is the third generation in his family to make a living crafting wood and mother-of-pearl figurines, peddling miniature nativity scenes and baby Jesuses to the tourists who flock to this famed plaza just steps from the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born. He will also be the last.

“My father passed this business on to me, but I will not pass it on to my son,” says Giacaman, who is 29 and recently earned his CPA degree. “With my certificate I can make a lot of money instead of just sitting here.”

And indeed, he often does just sit behind the counter, sometimes seeing entire days pass without a single tourist wandering in to select an item from his overstocked shelves.

Business for Bethlehem’s shopkeepers ground to a halt in 2000, when the Second Intifada broke out. As fighting between Israelis and Palestinians raged, tourism to the city and its 1,500-year-old Church of the Nativity all but ceased, dipping from 1 million visitors a year to barely one-tenth of that. The violence also spurred heavy Christian emigration; today, as a result of this exodus and a low birth rate, the city’s Christian population, which comprises a third of Bethlehem’s 30,000 residents, is dwindling.

The Intifada subsided in 2005, but not before Israel began building its 400 mile-long separation barrier, which snakes between Jerusalem and the ancient West Bank town and forces tourists entering from Israel to pass through a military checkpoint. While visitors are now returning to Bethlehem, with 2 million tourists projected to enter the city this year, the dollars that used to come with them are not.

Some 94 percent of visitors to the Palestinian territories make a stop in Bethlehem, but fewer than a quarter actually spend significant time—or money—in the city, which depends on tourism for 65 percent of its economy. The rest are ushered in with Israeli tour groups; they rush in, light a candle in the Church of Nativity, and rush back out. While the economy in the West Bank has, on the whole, been experiencing healthy growth over the past decade, Bethlehem is struggling to keep up. With an area of seven square miles, it is the smallest Palestinian city in the West Bank, but its unemployment rate, which hovers around 20 percent, is also the highest.

Mass-manufactured products from China have crowded the souvenir market, forcing Giacaman and his father to slash the prices on their hand-carved goods. Many tourists are steered to larger stores away from the square, where shop owners can offer a commission to the guides and bus drivers who bring visitors through the door. Merchants and municipal workers say many tourists don’t have time to shop anyway—their Israeli-operated tour groups bring them into Bethlehem to crouch through the Church of the Nativity’s tiny Door of Humility, climb down to its famous grotto, and then return to their buses without so much as a stop for lunch.

A man sits in the Church of Nativity's Grotto, where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, on December 18. (Reuters/Ammar Awad)

“I’m suffering now,” says Giacaman. “And I think of my son, who is one and a half-years-old. In 20 years, I think of how he will suffer.”

Giacaman’s shop, which also sells mass-produced souvenirs like postcards and scarves bearing the Palestinian flag, sits on the square’s south side, squeezed snugly between a cafe and a similar souvenir shop selling the same goods. Save for a trio of young men sucking on a water pipe outside the cafe, all three spots were empty when I visited at midday on a Monday. The 55-foot Manger Square Christmas Tree, which like many of the products here is a synthetic China-made knockoff, looms on the east end of the square, closest to the church.

In a bid to jumpstart the city’s busiest economic season, the tree was lit two weeks earlier than usual this year, on December 1. Giacaman’s view of the plastic fir, however, is blocked by the carts used for the Manger Square Bethlehem Christmas market, which is intended to feature arts and crafts from artists throughout the Palestinian territories. The truth, he says, is that the carts are packed with made-in-China replicas.

“This is done by the Bethlehem Municipality, but most of the day it’s empty—they use it just two hours a day and the rest of the time it just hides our shops,” he says bitterly as he gestures at the carts. “It’s not enough that Israel is hiding us with the wall, but we are building more walls inside our walled city.”

Musicians perform in Bethlehem's Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, on December 1, (Reuters/Ammar Awad)

To the west of the square, the mood is no lighter. Many of the stores here and up along the historic Star Street and Pilgrim’s Road never reopened after the Intifada. On a cold and drizzly day earlier this month, the area was packed with vendors peddling falafel, fresh hot corn, and cheap plastic umbrellas. But no one seemed to be buying. A trio of European pilgrims, who had come to Bethlehem with raincoats in tow, ducked out of the church and said their tour group had arranged for lunch outside of town.

“Our tourism numbers are better in quantity, but not in quality,” says Mohammad Awadallah, a Palestinian tour guide. “But we are looking for quality. We need people to come buy the stuff made here, made by the Christians, not from China or India.”

Tourists are whisked away, Awadallah says, because they nearly all come in groups led by Israeli guides. Despite the fact that Israel ceded control of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1995, Israelis still control the checkpoints leading into the city, and the movement of Palestinians there is restricted. Palestinian guides in Bethlehem are left courting solo travelers outside of the church, while Israeli guides maintain a de facto monopoly over tour groups, nearly all of which also visit sites inside Israel.

“If we receive 100 [Israeli guides] here, we should be allowed to have 100 Palestinians go and guide all over the Holy Land,” he says. “This is not politics. This is just part of civil living … but the Israelis are in charge, and you cannot guide in Israel without special permission.”

Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun, a poised former high school headmistress with fluent English and a master’s degree in literature, says she is frustrated by the lack of interaction that Bethlehem’s tourists have with the city.

Mayor Vera Baboun speaks to constituents at a market in Bethlehem. (Reuters/Mohamad Torokman)

“When we talk about pilgrims entering the church and then leaving Bethlehem within three hours, Bethlehem does not really live up to its status as a tourist city,” she says. Baboun, a Christian and the city’s first female mayor, is seated in her office on the west side of the square, flanked by a sparkling Christmas tree and the Palestinian flag. Some 80 percent of visitors to Bethlehem come for only one day, a fact that has her visibly frustrated. And even those who do stay longer—Bethlehem’s 3,300 hotel rooms are full during the month of December, and 2,000 more are in the works—are not showing up in Manger Square for the festive calendar of events—including Russian dance lessons and an outdoor children’s theater—that she and her staff planned for each day in December.

Baboun is working to create a new industrial zone in the city’s south, which would produce items as varied as dairy products and paper goods. But she says Bethlehem will always need tourism because its size hinders development.

“The master of the game is land,” she says. “Everybody knows that in order to develop projects, and become more urban, you need territory.”

That need for land is all the more crucial, Baboun says, as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks continue over Christmas.

“My message at Christmas depends on Gloria in excelsis Deo, the glory of God in heaven,” she says. “It’s not that the wall is still here, but that inequality is still present. So we need that message, especially during this important phase in negotiations and the peace process.”