Tourists Lacking in Bethlehem at Christmas

ByABC News
December 25, 2005, 2:30 PM

BETHLEHEM, Dec. 25, 2005 — -- Christmas in Bethlehem means music and festive celebrations. But as on other days, it also means a strong military presence.

To enter this little city in the West Bank, visitors must pass through a new $8 million security terminal. By some accounts, if Mary and Joseph were to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem today, they'd have to pass through more than a dozen military checkpoints.

Chris Shinn has advice for Americans who travel to Bethlehem regularly. "I always caution people when they say, 'Aw, come to Bethlehem at Christmas time' because it is not necessarily what one's expectations might be," he said.

The entire city is now cut off by the wall -- Israel's security barrier. Israeli officials say the 25-foot high wall has been successful in preventing terrorism, but residents of Bethlehem claim it is frightening tourists.

"They saw the wall, they are afraid to come," said Ramsey Jaha, owner of Bethlehem Souvenir Shop. "Maybe they think we have problems inside."

But this has been the most problem-free year since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting five years ago. This Christmas, an estimated 30,000 visitors flocked to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born.

That's much better than any of the last five years, but it's less than a third of the number of tourists who visited on an average year in the 1990s. Locals were hoping for a bigger turnout.

On one of the formerly bustling streets of Bethlehem, the wall has closed off the main entrance. Businesses are dying, tourists are staying away. There is just not much Christmas spirit here.

"All the shops, all the restaurants, all the souvenir shops depend -- our life depends on the tourists," said Hamsid Khola, owner of the Christmas Tree Restaurant. "Without tourists, Bethlehem closes."

Unemployment is about 60 percent, and the city is bankrupt. The Christian mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, calls his city a prison. He's written President Bush and the pope for help and has gone on speaking tours in some states, asking tourists to come and save his city.

"We need them to come here and break these walls by coming into Bethlehem, breaking them not physically but psychologically," Batarseh said.

This season, the people of Bethlehem were asking for tourists, but security is casting a long shadow on their Christmas wish.

ABC News' Wilf Dinnick reported this story for "World News Tonight."