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