4th Issue

Pope Francis visits Bethlehem. Will it boost annual tourist figures?

Pope Francis visits Bethlehem. Will it boost annual tourist figures?

in an historic visit to the Middle East, the Pope, with his white robes symbolising purity and peace, walked in a highly spirited yet humble manner through Bethlehem. From the Vatican to Jordan, from Palestine to Israel, the global head of the Catholic Church brought “seeds of peace” to the region. However spiritual and religious its aim, the visit seemed to bring more than was intended: prosperity to a smoldering regionthat could use a cooling influence.

Thousands of people from all over the world turned out for the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis to Bethlehem on May 25th, with the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism reporting that 10,000 worshippers held tickets for the mass in Nativity Square. This figure did not include those who sneaked in from the North, South, East and West to catch a glimpse of one of the globe’s most recognisable personalities. Nor did it include the 10,000 or so who signed up with Palestinian tourist operators in the West Bank city.

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photos by Omar Odeh

The Palestinian President’s office had 1,000 journalists registered for this official visit – a number that increased even before the sun rose on that glorious Sunday morning. While the actual figures may never be known, the number of people may soon translate to dollar signs for the second holiest city in Palestine.

“If we compare this month, May 2014, with May 2013 we see an increase of 10% in terms of the numbers of tourists … this percentage will be higher by the end of the month, “said Palestinian Tourism Minister, Rula Ma’ayah.

Pope Francis arrived in Palestine from Jordan via helicopter and celebrated mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, met with families in Palestinian refugee camps, held talks with Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and toured the Old City of Jerusalem. He moved Palestinians – and stunned Israelis – when he made an unscheduled stop at Israel’s separation wall to pray. He also visited Israel.

In Jordan, the Pope led mass at Ammans International Stadium, met with Syrian and Iraqi refugees residing in the Hashemite Kingdom, and spent time with disabled children.

“The whole world will hear about this visit, hundreds of millions of people will hear about it or watch it.

I think this will give a good push for the Palestinians. The pope visiting Palestine and the whole world watching means Christians from all over the world will be encouraged to come and visit Palestine”, said Ma’ayah.

Tourism is no doubt one of the most important sectors in Palestine. Of course, the Pope’s visit has political connotations that imply “peace” for both Israelis and Palestinians. But his presence also translates into a future where more tourists may come to Bethlehem. An increase in overnight stays means “a development in the sector, which means a better life for Palestinians … and this will help the Palestinian economy in general,” said Ma’ayah.

This is the third visit to Palestine by a Pontiff; Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2009 and Pope John Paul II in the Millennium year, 2000.

The Palestinian city of Bethlehem generates much money from what is known as “religious tourism.” Not only for the Middle East region but for the whole world, the coming of the Pope in 2014 injects a glimmer of hope that Palestinian Christians will remain in Bethlehem.

Tourism is very important for all economies as one job out of eleven is somehow related to the tourism market, with the tourism sector contributing 9% of the world’s GDP.

One could almost describe the event as being “like Christmas in May” – with the city decorated with photos of the Pope and a resident of nearby Beit Jala describing the city as “festive” and “lively”. Bethlehem Municipality even asked shopkeepers in Manger Square to paint their doors in green and blue as “a symbol of peace and togetherness”.

The Giacaman family did so willingly. As one of the oldest families living in Bethlehem, able to trace their familys presence back nearly 500 years, they’ve sold olive wood souvenirs since 1925. “We hope that the effects of this visit will come in the future”, said sales manager for their Manger Square branch, Mr. Nabil Giacaman.

In his invitation to Presidents Abbas and Peres to visit the Vatican, the Pontiff stated that, “Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment”. Bethlehem and its residents know this all too well, and hope that it doesn’t take too long for that ever-lasting peace to be achieved.

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