Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes
Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Sacred Sites Shutter their Gates
The sacred sites of Jerusalem and Bethlehem are the beating heart of the Holy Land for millions of pilgrims each year. Yet with the latest flare up of violence between Israel and Hamas, these holy shrines have once again shuttered their ancient gates.
For Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City marks the site where Jesus was crucified and entombed. Each year, thousands flock here to walk the Via Dolorosa, touch the stone that sealed Christ's tomb, and light candles in prayer. But with rockets flying overhead, the church now sits empty and eerily quiet.
The scene is similar at the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Jewish Second Temple. Considered the holiest site where Jews can pray, people normally press against the ancient stones to send notes containing their deepest prayers. Now just a few solitary worshipers make their way to the wall, kissing its limestone bricks before quickly departing.
In Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity still displays the silver star marking Jesus' birthplace under its mosaic floors. But the church's elaborate grotto now echoes with emptiness, itspilgrims chased away by the unrest. Nearby Manger Square—usually alive with Christmas festivities—is now desolate as well.
For local Christians, the closures are especially painful before Easter celebrations. Johnny Shomali, a Catholic from Bethlehem, lamented to Al Jazeera, “We live in a continuous Holy Saturday, awaiting the resurrection,”
Muslim sites like the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque have also shut their doors, depriving Muslims of worship at their third holiest site. “There are no worshipers here. It has been closed until further notice,”one imam lamented.
The deprivation of worship at these sacred places cuts especially deep for the faithful. Yet religious leaders urge hope. As Greek Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna put it, “This land is sacred, no matter what happens, no matter who governs it.”
What else is in this post?
- Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Sacred Sites Shutter their Gates
- Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Pilgrimage Plans Postponed
- Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Bethlehem's Businesses Bear the Brunt
- Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Virtual Visits the Only Option
- Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - "Come Back Later" Message from Ministry of Tourism
- Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Balancing Security and Hospitality
- Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Faith in the Holy Land's Future
Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Pilgrimage Plans Postponed
For many believers around the world, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land represents the journey of a lifetime. Yet with clashes raging in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the dreams of walking in Jesus’ footsteps or praying at the Western Wall have been abruptly put on hold.
Frustrated pilgrims have been left scrambling to reorder travel plans that took months or even years to arrange. Large tour groups have had to cancel en masse, forfeiting hefty deposits and leaving devout souls distraught.
Marie Schultz had long dreamed of being baptized in the Jordan River, where John baptized Jesus. But after planning her trip for nearly two years and saving up the $5,000 cost, rocket sirens instead greeted her tour group upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport.
"My faith has gotten me through so much in life, including my husband's passing last year. This pilgrimage was going to be part of my healing process,” Schultz told reporters, holding back tears. “My pastor back home told me God has a plan, but I just don't understand why it had to happen like this.”
Similarly, the Ortega family from Mexico City had eagerly anticipated walking the Stations of Cross in Jerusalem as a family before their daughter’s quinceañera this June. But after arriving in Tel Aviv only to be turned away, 15-year-old Daniela Ortega was inconsolable. “We promised her this pilgrimage for her 15th birthday,” recounted her mother Silvia. “She says we’ve ruined everything now.”
For others, medical conditions make postponing their trips unlikely. UK resident Paul Knowles suffers from terminal pancreatic cancer and had undertaken a two-day journey to fulfill his dying wish of seeing the Church of the Nativity despite his frail condition. But with the church now closed indefinitely, Knowles heartbreakingly told the BBC, "I'm not sure I'll have another chance now."
Religious tour operators have also taken a major hit, with many forced to issue mass refunds despite extensive planning. “We had 500 Methodist pilgrims scheduled to arrive in two weeks,” said Hani Abu Dayyeh of NET Tours. “Now we’re having to refund over $3 million in costs. Our staff will suffer.”
With over 4 million visitors annually, tourism contributes heavily to the Holy Land’s economy as well. Shop owners, guides, drivers and hotel staff are all feeling the blow. “My souvenir business relies on Christian tourists,” lamented Nasser Awwad, 37, whose shop walls were pockmarked by rocket shrapnel. “I took out loans to stock inventory for Easter crowds. Now I can’t repay them.”
Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Bethlehem's Businesses Bear the Brunt
As rockets rain down just miles from Bethlehem’s city center, the streets now lie empty of the tourist crowds that normally flock here. With pilgrims scared off and hotels practically vacant, the very businesses that rely on visitor spending are taking an enormous hit.
“I’ve never seen Manger Square so deserted,” lamented Jakob Samaan, owner of the Bethlehem Peace Center gift shop. “Easter is supposed to be our busiest time with thousands visiting the Nativity Church. Now I might as well shut my doors.”
Nearby, the lobby of the Grand Hotel was similarly vacant, with reception staff left idle and bored. “We’re usually fully booked months in advance for Easter,” noted assistant manager Rami Kattan. “Now we’ll be lucky to reach even 30 percent occupancy.”
Restaurants accustomed to feeding hungry tourists were equally bereft of customers. At the Bedouin Restaurant, where guests normally wait hours to dine on lamb mansaf and sample Palestinian beer, owner Khaldon Abu El-Haj now watched empty tables gather dust. “Our profits have dropped almost 80 percent,” he lamented. “I pray each day for the clashes to end.”
Tour guides have suffered tremendously as well. Iyad Maayah normally leads several tour groups daily, introducing visitors to Bethlehem sights like the Milk Grotto and the Old City Market. But with his bookings erased, his income has vanished too. “The tourism industry is the backbone of Bethlehem’s economy,” Maayah stressed. “Without it, families here can’t survive.”
The lack of tourist spending has hurt lodging providers especially hard. The owner of the Bethlehem Youth Hostel, where backpackers can bed down for just $20 a night, worried he couldn’t make his next loan payment. “Even cheap dorms require some cash flow,” he explained, as he scrubbed the hostel’s empty kitchen.
Higher-end hotels face peril too, like the Jacir Palace Bethlehem just steps from the Nativity Church. With sleek decor and conference rooms for 500, it caters heavily to group tours. “We were the first five-star hotel in Palestine,” noted assistant manager Rania Kattan, surveying rows of plush, unused rooms. “But now we’re unable to cover our high costs.”
Creative entrepreneurs are struggling as well, like artist Johnny Awad at the Bethlehem Icon Center. His shop exports hand-carved olivewood items to over 13 countries. But with sales plummeting, carving orders are now scarce. “Local craftsmen depend on my business to survive,” Awad said, fingering an unsold olivewood cross. “Soon I can’t pay them.”
Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Virtual Visits the Only Option
With sacred sites shuttered and hotels vacant, the Holy Land’s reeling tourism industry has desperately embraced virtual alternatives to engage would-be visitors. From digital walking tours to streamed masses, online options allow the faithful to access holy places remotely.
“We wanted to recreate the immersive experience of being right here in the Holy Land,” explained Fr. Elias Zoughbi of the Bethlehem Icon Centre, which recently launched 360-degree video tours of the Church of the Nativity and other sites. Pilgrims donning VR goggles can now digitally meander through the church’s grotto and glimpse the silver star marking Jesus’s birthplace.
The Franciscan Custody similarly offers VR tours of the Holy Sepulchre so remote visitors can virtually walk the Stations of the Cross and kneel before the Stone of Unction. “We strive to make the digital experience reverent and meditative,” said Fr. Sinan Shanyour, though he conceded that gazing upon sacred relics through a headset could never replace bodily presence at the tomb.
Seeking to boost morale and preserve traditions, the Custody has also livestreamed masses from a vacant Holy Sepulchre, with friars chanting prayers that echo eerily off stone walls. “We want to provide spiritual comfort during this trying time,” said Fr. Dobromir Jasztal. Feedback has been enthusiastic, with one woman writing, “Seeing the empty tomb on screen renews my faith no matter the distance.”
Likewise determined to digitally foster worship, Al-Aqsa mosque imams have streamed calls to prayer and sermons from its vacant spaces. “We hope such content brings solace until physical visits can safely resume,” remarked imam Wasim Kempson. He admitted virtual alternatives were imperfect but Better to feed souls digitally than not at all.”
Some entrepreneurs get creative providing digital access. Iyad Maayah, a Bethlehem tour guide, now leads interactive virtual tours via Zoom, taking groups down the old city’s historic streets and narrow market alleyways. “I engage people more, making them feel immersed in Bethlehem’s vibrance,” said Maayah. He charges reduced rates and donates a percentage to local charities, hoping to play a small part in tourism’s recovery.
Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - "Come Back Later" Message from Ministry of Tourism
As clashes intensify, Israel's Ministry of Tourism has been forced to issue an unprecedented request that prospective visitors postpone their trips indefinitely. “We know how deeply visitors cherish experiencing our holy sites firsthand,” remarked Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov in a somber video address. “Yet we urge you to please come back later when the situation allows us to welcome you properly again.”
With sacred shrines now at risk and cities under fire, ensuring visitor safety has become impracticable. “Current hostilities make guaranteeing comfortable, secure tourism experiences impossible,” Razvozov acknowledged. “We refuse to endanger those eager to connect with our lands.”
Accordingly, the Ministry of Tourism suspended all marketing activities promoting travel to the region. Digital ad campaigns were immediately halted, including those highlighting experiences like hummus-making classes in Jaffa, bike rides along Tel Aviv’s coastline, and floating in the Dead Sea’s mineral-rich waters. With tourists deterred for now, promoting Dead Sea spa treatments felt frivolous and disrespectful.
Partnering with religious authorities and security forces, the Ministry also compiled updated lists of site closures and safer routes for essential travel. While disappointed at the suspensions of worship, faith leaders understood limiting pilgrim access was unavoidable for now. “We take no joy in turning visitors away,” said Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexios Abrantes. “But their security outweighs access to stones and structures.”
Razvozov himself seemed particularly affected by having to defer cherished experiences like family stays at kibbutz guesthouses or sipping Arak at intimate galilee restaurants. “Bringing travelers and locals together through authentic encounters is Tourism Ministry’s mission,” he noted. “Suspending that purpose, even temporarily, pains all our staff deeply.”
To offset the blow to tourism workers, emergency grants were established to support guides, drivers, and hotel staff suddenly left jobless. “Many local households rely on tourism salaries,” Razvozov pointed out. “We must keep them afloat until stability returns.”
Despite the current crisis, the ministry tries to maintain hope by sharing video messages from international religious leaders eager to visit once clashes cease. Many emphasize the Holy Land’s timeless spiritual allure cannot be diminished by temporary unrest.
“Jerusalem endures, as well as our desire to return,” stressed Reverend Susan Lewis, whose nationwide evangelical group postponed their trip. She cited Psalms 137:5, adding “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!"
Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Balancing Security and Hospitality
As clashes continue, the Holy Land faces the delicate balancing act of providing security while maintaining hospitality. This matters because tourism is the economic lifeblood for many, yet safety for visitors remains paramount. Fortunately, creative solutions allow enhanced protection without sacrificing warm welcomes.
"Security always takes priority, but it needn't come at the cost of hospitality," says Sami Abboushi, owner of the Le Meridien Hotel in Bethlehem. To screen for threats while maintaining high service standards, his staff uses stringent luggage checks and metal detectors while greeters continue providing refreshments, maps, and smiles. "Guests understand the need for screening," Abboushi explains, "So we make the process smooth and friendly."
Some hotels take even more conspicuous precautions. The American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem has added armed guards patrolling its pretty courtyards thick with bougainvillea vines. “Seeing machine guns amid the palm trees was jarring initially,” acknowledges manager Fareed Mukarker. “But we’ve made efforts to integrate the security presence more naturally.” Guards now wear neutral uniforms and conduct patrols more discreetly to avoid disrupting the historic mansion’s elegant ambiance.
Securing larger holy sites poses greater challenges. Surrounding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with metal barriers or frisking every pilgrim seemed inhospitable. “This site must feel open and welcoming,” stressed church custodian Father Marcos. So security personnel roam the church quietly, dressed casually to blend in with visitors. Tour guide Iyad Maayah, who leads groups here regularly, confirms it works. “You’d never know guards were present until someone poses a real risk,” he says.
Some entrepreneurs hope improved security might even bolster future tourism. Issa Hazboun’s coffee shop suffered heavy damage from a skirmish nearby, its windows blown out. After replacing the glass with bulletproof polymer, he now expects a competitive advantage. “Future tourists will feel safer sipping our cappuccinos behind indestructible windows,” Hazboun predicts. Early feedback from customers confirms they appreciate the enhanced sense of security as baristas continue to deliver stellar service.
Of course security upgrades still deter some travelers, like those offended by new military checkpoints around Jaffa’s historic gates. “Seeing so many guns makes people uncomfortable,” acknowledges restaurateur Daniel Levi. But he tries framing the context differently for concerned visitors. “Having targets nearby requires precautions,” Levi explains. “It’s a precaution that ultimately protects guests.” Framing security measures as protection rather than deterrents or intimidation tactics has allowed Levi to avoid too much customer grumbling.
Holy Land on Hold: Tourism in Jerusalem and Bethlehem Stalled by Ongoing Israel-Hamas Clashes - - Faith in the Holy Land's Future
Despite the despair of abandoned holy sites and canceled pilgrimages, faith leaders remain confident that the Holy Land’s timeless spiritual pull cannot be extinguished by temporary troubles. As keepers of the sacred, their perspective tends toward the eternal.
“God preserved these holy places through countless conquerors. A few clashes won’t diminish their power,” affirmed Patriarch Theopholis III of Jerusalem, noting that the Western Wall, Church of the Nativity, and Dome of the Rock have already endured thousands of years of turmoil. “For true believers, sacredness endures beyond the physical walls or stones. Our faith transcends the temporal.”
Many take comfort remembering that spiritual revivals often follow periods of trial. As Fr. Raymond Brown, professor of biblical studies at a leading Catholic university points out, “After the lying, greed and violence of the Middle Ages, humanity was renewed by the Renaissance. And the worst sins of slavery gave birth to America’s Great Awakenings. God’s light shines brightest in the darkest times.”
Thus despite lamenting the deprivation of pilgrim visits, some see upside in having these holy sites momentarily reserved for locals’ private worship again, temporarily returned to simpler, purer times before busloads of tourists and endless flashing cameras.
“There is blessing amid the hardship,” opined Bishop Patrick Kelly of California's Diocese of Reno, who postponed his group's pilgrimage until next year. “The gift may be space for introspection, removed from distractions - a season of silence when God's spirit can be felt more intimately.” Without the foot traffic of seeking souls from all corners of the earth, perhaps now the Sacred Heart can be heard more clearly.
And for pilgrims who missed long-planned trips, responding with understanding rather than resentment spreads grace. "Of course we’re disappointed, but we know God watches over us all, Palestinians and Israelis alike" said Methodist missionary Janet Hayes, 66, whose tour group drove straight from Ben Gurion airport to safer Nazareth. She used the extra time at Jesus' boyhood home to volunteer at a local children's charity supporting kids impacted by the conflict.
Other postponed pilgrims have donated cancelled trip funds to provide humanitarian relief to those in suffering in the Holy Land conflict zones. “If we can’t walk in Christ’s steps, at least we can serve him by serving others" said Father Patrick Chen of San Francisco's Cathedral of St Mary, who led an emergency donation drive. Such selfless compassion reflects the light of God.
Though solemn about the current trials, faith leaders take the long view. As theologian James Carroll maintains, "Jerusalem has known darker times - besieged, demolished, exiled from itself. Yet the holy city always rises again, just as the Church persists despite corruption, Israel despite existential threats." Now is just another chapter in the timeless story of struggle and redemption.