TOURISM leaders fear that the travel and pilgrimage industry in Palestine will take years to recover from the paralysis imposed by the coronavirus lockdown, even as the virus appears to have been brought under control: as of Wednesday, no new cases had been confirmed in the West Bank and Gaza for five days.
In Bethlehem, 80 per cent of all income is generated through tourism, and several new hotels were being built in expectation of a bumper year for tourism. But, after the first case emerged in Bethlehem in early March, construction was abandoned, hotels, churches, and border crossings were closed, and a state of emergency was declared (News 13 March). Last week, the state of emergency was renewed for another month, although there have been only four deaths among a total of 547 confirmed cases.
“The timing was really bad, as it came at the peak season of Easter; all our hotels in Bethlehem and Jerusalem were booked, as were tour guides,” the executive director of the Holy Land Trust, Elias Deis, said. “We were expecting a peak season as hundreds of thousands of tourists were expected in March and April. But, in a day, everything collapsed, and Bethlehem is like a ghost town.”
The Trust runs tours to help visitors encounter Palestinian people through home stays. Mr Deis said that there was some hope that a small number of tourists might return for Christmas, but “community tourism will take much longer to recover as host families fear taking in tourists. Such tourism is very important for Palestinians as it gives them the chance to show tourists the reality of life here.”
He and others are lobbying the Palestinian Tourism Minister for support for those left out of work because of the virus.
The human-rights organisation the Amos Trust is working with the Holy Land Trust, and four other projects in Bethlehem and three in Gaza, all of which are offering food and emergency assistance to struggling households.
“So much of the informal employment that goes with tourism has all been decimated, and there is nothing for people to fall back on,” the director of the Amos Trust, the Revd Chris Rose, said. “We do not anticipate much of a return to pilgrimages and tours until next year.”
The World Bank has estimated that the Palestinian economy will shrink this year by between 2.6 and 7.6 per cent, depending on the length of the lockdown, noting that “a large share of the population was already vulnerable before the current outbreak”. The UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that 110,000 families have fallen into poverty since the outbreak owing to loss of income.
A tour guide in Bethlehem, Rana Salman, said that some food supplies had been sent by the government to struggling families. “Tourism in Palestine has always been negatively affected by unpredictable events; however, this is an emergency unlike any other emergency,” she said.
She was hopeful, however, that many of those who had cancelled tours this year would return next year. “We have lived through very difficult times before — I am hopeful 2021 will be a better year.”