Palestinians prepare for millennium in Bethlehem

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BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Authority -- The Palestinian public and private sectors are gearing up for a millennium-year project of improvements and celebrations in this ancient city, which is potentially the most valuable tourism center in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas.

Image More significant to Palestinian tourism than the biblical city of Jericho, where the PA recently opened a casino, the Bethlehem 2000 project is expected to be the cornerstone of the Palestinian tourism industry.

Officials said that, under a "Follow the Star" theme, at least one event is being planned for each week during the 16 months between December 1999 and Easter 2001, and they expect the celebrations to help jump-start the tourism sector of the fledgling Palestinian economy.

"If the year 2000 [celebrations are] successful, I'm confident that tourists will come in greater numbers," said Nabeel Kassis, general coordinator of the Bethlehem 2000 project, in an interview.

The Palestinians hope to kick off the celebrations with a 24-hour live broadcast from Bethlehem next year on Christmas with representatives from around the globe lighting a Christmas tree. Fireworks, Palestinian folk dances and sports events are planned for the weeks and months that follow.

Organizers also envision a gathering of Nobel Prize winners, including President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, the Palestinian Authority's Yasir Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The latter two won the award for their role in the creation of the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

A performance of Handel's "Messiah," led by a conductor still to be chosen, is one of the events in the planning stage.

The cost of the festivities and of readying Bethlehem for the new millennium will exceed $200 million, according to the organizers. The World Bank reportedly already has set aside $25 million for Bethlehem 2000 to help boost basic services such as power, sanitation and water in the city. Another $40 million will come from other international donors, including Japan, Germany and Spain, organizers said.

Palestinians hope to welcome the first wave of millennium-era pilgrims next year with newly paved roads leading to religious sites and Bethlehem's first deluxe hotel.

Work crews have been busy converting a palace built by a wealthy Arab merchant named Salomon Jacer shortly after the turn of the century into a five-star hotel and resort. The property is situated on the main road as it enters Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

A deal is in the works for the Inter-Continental Hotels chain to operate the 250-room hotel, said Ziad El Nimer, general manager of the property's developer, Palestine Tourism Investment Co. Ltd.

Although Inter-Continental's name appears on architectural plans and an artist's rendition of the finished property, El Nimer and an Inter-Continental spokeswoman said no final deal had been signed.

Jacer Palace most recently was used as a school. Crayon-colored PA Education Ministry posters promoting literacy in Arabic still adorn the walls, as do a photo of Arafat and literature with references to violence from the Fatah youth organization.

In its new incarnation, the $150 million Jacer Palace hotel and resort will sit on 36,000 square yards of land and will have two pools, a health club, tennis courts, four restaurants and three ballrooms with a total capacity of 1,000 people, according to developers.

Their plans call for the hotel to be named the Beit Lahem Inter-Continental, using the Arabic word for Bethlehem.

Jacer Palace developers predicted that the influx of 3 million or more tourists expected for the millennium celebrations would undoubtedly sustain a five-star hotel despite the fact that pilgrims tend to be budget-conscious travelers. "We've been getting the lower-end [tourists] because of the types of hotels that are here, mostly two- and three-star family-run hotels," said Maher Hamdan, general manager of the developer's sister company, Jerusalem Tourism Investment Co. Ltd. "We're trying to change that and offer a competitive product and bring in the pilgrims as well as the businessman and [anyone who is coming to Jerusalem]," Hamdan said.

Jacer Palace is only about four miles from Jerusalem's Old City.

Still uncertain is how resounding a message of peace will be able to radiate from Bethlehem. In the past, the city more often has been associated with clashes between Palestinians and Israelis than with religious harmony, and despite agreements between the PA and Israel, peace has proved elusive. If the two sides cannot agree on final-status issues in the next round of negotiations, tensions could flare anew.

Other problems have slowed tourism to Bethlehem, as well.

The level of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians on festivities for 2000 dropped markedly following the death earlier this year of Elias Freij, according to Moshe Katsav, Israel's tourism minister and deputy prime minister.

Freij was a political moderate who served as Bethlehem's mayor for several decades and as tourism minister for the PA until his death. Katsav encouraged increasing cooperation, noting that Israel has its own wealth of religiously significant sites with which to attract tourists in Jerusalem and in the Galilee region in the north, and that working with the Palestinians could enable the two parties to offer joint tours and packages.

The Palestinians, however, said that Israel's tour operators have brought little to the Palestinian economy during ventures into Bethlehem. Revenues, Kassis said, are "not commensurate with the number of visiting tourists."

An estimated 40% of visitors to Bethlehem have generated less than 5% of tourism revenues, he said. "They bring their sandwiches with them, they go to the Church of the Nativity and leave. We want to change this," Kassis said.

Hamdan added that a measure of cooperation between Palestinians and Israeli is needed if both tourism industries are to succeed. "These days, you sell Cairo [Egypt], Jerusalem [Israel] and Aqaba [Jordan]; you don't just sell one city anymore."

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