Today marks a bit of a turnaround in Israeli tourism history. No, we’re not talking about yet another record smashing month, we’re talking about the fact that 50 Jewish and Druze tour guides and drivers were allowed into Bethlehem for the first time since 2000 (the outbreak of the second intifada). Israelis have been forbidden from entering the Palestinian Authority, but thanks to demand from many tour operators within Israel – who wanted professional, local guides accompanying their busloads of Christian tourists – the Tourism Ministry has been granted permission to allow Israeli tour guides back into the region’s Christian tourist hot spot, Bethlehem.
Actually, back in January the OK was given for Israeli tour guides to enter Bethlehem, but a rush of 500 tour guides wanting a slice of the pie meant a lottery had to be put in place. This resulted in 50 lucky winners who are taking part in a pilot program, and who are out in Bethlehem today, probably scuttling through Manger Square as we speak.
Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov had this to say:
I see great importance in the tour guiding in Bethlehem which will facilitate an increase in the scope of the tour guides’ work, allow for top-level guiding for tourists, an increase in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and, of no less importance, an improvement in the international image of Israel and the Holy Land as a safe destination for tourists. I hope that this pilot program will receive cooperation from all the various entities and will generate an increase in tourism activities in the near future.
This pilot program highlights the ongoing cooperation between the Tourism Ministry and tourism bodies in the Palestinian Authority: cooperation that has seen over a million visitors and tourists to Bethlehem in 2008 and over 1.3 million in 2009.