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Bethlehem Tourism Reaches Record High As Palestinians See Hope For Peace Dimming


Tourism is at a record high in the West Bank city of Bethlehem this Christmas. Amid a marketing push and a perception of relative stability. But the good news about tourism comes at a time when many Palestinians are seeing hopes for peace and independence dimming. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Bethlehem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It's been a day of pomp and circumstance in Bethlehem this Christmas Eve. Boy and Girl Scouts marched with bagpipes and trumpets. Palestinian Christians lined the streets wearing their fanciest clothes. Nearby in the Church of the Nativity, throngs of visitors from around the world seek a quieter moment.



ESTRIN: They pray and kneel at the site where tradition says Jesus was born. Jon and Cheryl Gray are from Sonoma County, Calif.

CHERYL GRAY: We're here just to capture the whole spirit of Christmas in the right way. And we're not about the gifts and the trees. We are about Jesus Christ. And so we're here to have this experience.

JON GRAY: It's pretty magical. About a year-and-a-half ago, our daughter passed away unexpectedly for no reason. So part of this is also just kind of a tribute to her.

C GRAY: She was 18 years old. So we're here to...

J GRAY: Honor her spirit.

ESTRIN: One-point-nine million visitors came to the church this year, Palestinian tourism officials say. That's a big difference from the early 2000s, during a Palestinian uprising against Israel when Palestinian militants holed up in this very church, surrounded by Israeli troops. Now visitors are coming here in record numbers.

Even on Christmas Eve, construction has not stopped at the future site of the 12-story Saint Elias Hotel. Iyad Atrash says his family's $10 million investment is worth it.

IYAD ATRASH: There is many tourists who will come to see the Nativity Church (ph). It is impossible not to come here. For that, we are thinking to invest something for the future.

ESTRIN: Outside of Bethlehem's growing tourism sector, there's not the same optimism about the future. Longtime Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki just came out with a new poll.

KHALIL SHIKAKI: This has been one of the most depressing surveys I had ever done.

ESTRIN: He says per capita income is dropping. Palestinian leadership is divided. The West Bank remains under a five-decade-old Israeli military occupation. And Palestinian opinion is divided on the path forward.

SHIKAKI: So, during the worst days of violence the belief that a two state solution is feasible and it is the answer - a permanent answer for the conflict - was still very, very strong. And today it is only a minority that believes in that.

ESTRIN: I spoke about this with a young Palestinian Christian couple at the Church of the Nativity - Thaer and Mira Mukarker.

THAER MUKARKER: People feels frustration because for the past, you know, 20 years we all believed in peace and we worked in peace. But it didn't, you know, take us anywhere. So I use only one word, which is lost.

ESTRIN: Are you optimistic that you'll see a Palestinian state?

MUKARKER: No. We don't see. And we will never see - OK? - yeah, because of the American support to Israel, as simple as that.

ESTRIN: His wife Mira says Palestinians feel the world has neglected them. But she's heartened that this church is filled with pilgrims from around the world who see this city as peaceful.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Bethlehem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELKHORN'S "TO SEE DARKNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.