At a time when hundreds of thousands of tourists may possibly make their way to Bethlehem next Christmas and New Years to usher in the new century, including the Pope, and another possible visit of the U.S. President,there is a common assumpton that the new Palestine Authority, which may be an independent state by then, would be making plans to receive such an influx of tourism and foreign currency.
Arriving in Bethlehem, before, during and after Christmas, Israel Resource Review looked for signs that Bethlehem is preparing for something big next year. We had heard of a plan to construct four or five tourist hotel in the area known as Solomon’s Pools and that the area near Manger Square, Beit Sahour, and Shepherds’ Field would also add tourist hotels of some capacity. Yet these were just rumors.
The tourism professionals at the Palestine Authority’s tourism department could only mention one tourism facility that is in the throes of the development towards “Bethlehem 2000” – a singlular tourist hotel development at “Jasser’s Palace”, a ten minute walk from Rachel’s Tomb, the one sight of Jewish interest that you can no longer see from the Bethlehem road.
Described by Bethlehem local tourist bulletin as Bethlehem’s “architectural jewel”, Jasser Palace is an impressive building built by an Arab notable, Suleiman Jasser, in 1910 under the supervision of a French architect. The building has gone through many hands, as a German and then a British prison, as a girls’ school, as an Israel border guard post during the Intifada and then again as a girls school.
However, with the approach of the millenium, the palace is expected to enter into a new stage of its life. The Palestinian Development and Investment Company (PADICO) bought the building and its surrounding land with $46 million of Jordanian and Palestinian investment funds in order to transform it into the “Jaser Palace Hotel-Bethlehem Intercontinental” which will be become Bethlehem’s one tourist resort, scheduled to open its doors next Christmas, 85 years after it was originally built.
Ziad el Nimer,49, an engineer and resident of Amman, Jordan and a native of Nablus, and a father of three, is overseeing the refurbishing of Jaser’s Palace.
Nimer, the general manager of the Palestine Tourism Investment Co. LTD, which is actually subcontracted by PADICO, the Palestine Development and Investment Company, says that the opening of Jasser’s Palace will hold what hoteliers call a “soft opening” next Christmas, with its 250 rooms ready to be filled to capacity, with at least one of its restaurants off and running at that time.
Nimer, bubbling with enthusiasm, says, “There is a clear idea about what the palace was like before. We have allocated a budget of US$1 million for its renovation. We will take advantage of the vast area inside approximately 3,000 square metres, to build various restaurants in addition to a reception hall, a guest hall, a coffee shop, and a bar.” Nimr pointed out that for renovation of the palace, a number of international designers were asked their expertise and who are now conducting detailed studies before beginning renovation on the palace.
Nimer’s vision is businesslike, yet limited to the designs of a small, private businessman who is looking at what looks to be a profitable $46 million investment.
He says very proudly how his enterprise will bring hotel room capacity in Bethlehem to 1500 rooms by New Years Day 2,000, from the present 1200 hotel rooms that Bethlehem currently sports.
If my elementary school math is correct, 1,500 hotel rooms will hardly accomodate to the hundreds of thousands of Christian tourists who are expected in Bethlehem next year at this time.
Nimer referred to his colleague in Jerusalem, Moher Hamdan, the director of the Jerusalem Tourism Investment Company, who is developing the overall “tourism picture” for potential Christian tourists elsewhere in the areas under the control of the Palestine Authority and in East Jerusalem. Reached at his Jerusalem office, Hamdan mentioned that 600 more hotel beds would be added by this time next year. Also not enough to accomadat massive amounts of pilgrims.
At a time when the Israel Ministry of Tourism also does not seem to be making any accomodation plans of its own for a massive pilgrimage to greet the year 2000, it would seem that no one is really expecting a big party next new year, not in Jerusalem and not in Bethlehem.
Since my younger daughter Leora’s Bat mitzvah will be held in a “little town near Bethlehem” on the last weekend of the twentieth century, should I also expect only quiet celebrations to compete without “simcha” at that time?