Israel's ban on overnight Bethlehem trips could affect Christian pilgrims and tourism

Israel has decided to ban overnight trips to Bethlehem as part of its efforts to protect Israeli hotels and to guard against acts of terrors. However, the move could have a negative impact on the tourism industry and on Christian pilgrimages.

(REUTERS / Ammar Awad)Tourists walk outside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem October 10, 2011.

Last month, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior issued an order prohibiting tourists who visit Israel as part of the group tour to sleep over in Bethlehem and the West Bank, citing security concerns. While the order does not cover individual travelers, it could affect those who are part of Christian pilgrimage groups, The Media Line notes.

The Interior Ministry's Population and Immigration Authority sent letters to Israeli travel agencies telling them not to take tourists to Palestine territory starting May 15. The letter also said all requests to bring tour groups to Israel will not be processed if it does not include a form undertaking that they will not take groups for overnight stays in Bethlehem, Times of Israel reports.

Bethlehem and Jerusalem are just a few miles apart, and the two places are usually included in the destinations of pilgrimages. Unfortunately, the conflicts and violence in the region have taken a toll on tourism and have prevented tourists from visiting in 2015 and 2016.

The announcement about the ban on overnight trips to Bethlehem sparked international backlash, as tour operators in both Israel and Palestine have already booked trips until next year. They see the move as an effort to protect Israeli hotels, as they are more expensive than their rivals in the West Bank.

"It (the order) would have a detrimental impact not just on Palestinians but on Israeli tour operators," said Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association president Sami Khoury told The Media Line.

Palestinians, on the other hand, fear that the order could kill tourism in the area.

"Tourism is the lifeblood of many Palestinian communities, like Bethlehem and Jericho," Green Olive tours CEO Fred Schlomka told the publication.

The public outcry prompted the Ministry to put the order on hold. However, Israeli and Palestinian tour operators are concerned that it could be reissued.