Long lines of tourists gathered in front of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity on Thursday morning, three days before Christmas. Group after group lined up for what seemed to be at least an hour-long wait to catch a glimpse of the manger where Christian tradition holds the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.
“I finally get to visit the start of Christianity,” said Martina, 53, a Russian tourist. “It’s a very emotional moment for me.”
The line continued to grow as more groups arrived.
“I have been waiting to see this church for many years,” said Sebastian Klaus, 43, a German tourist.
While the church, which is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, has earned the status of one of the main attractions in the Palestinian territories, many other historically significant sites around Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities rarely see visitors.
“It’s horrible that people don’t visit or know about this place,” George Rishmawi, the founder of Masar Ibrahim, an alternative tourism group, said of the Holy Virgin’s Well.
Christian tradition holds that the patriarch Jacob dug the well and that Mary drank from it when fleeing King Herod, who had ordered that all the children of Bethlehem be killed.
The well is smack in the middle of ancient Beit Sahur and has a church from the Byzantine era attached to it, which was discovered during a renovation of the well in the early 1970s paid for by the Beit Sahur Municipality and a wealthy donor.
“This is one of the most important Christian sites in the area,” Um Elias, the middle-aged caretaker of the well, remarked. “It is associated with many miracles.”
Um Elias, the caretaker of the Holy Virgin's Well, stands in the Byzantine era church attached to the well (Adam Rasgon)
Local Christians assert that the well’s water has healing properties.
Yet, despite the history of the well and the attached church, Um Elias estimates that only a few hundred tourists come to the site every month.
“Some tourists come, but far less than you would expect for such an important place,” Um Elias added. “I think there needs to be more investment and promotion.”
Rishmawi, who hails from Beit Sahur, said the primary reason most tourists don’t visit the well is that tour operators don’t put in on their itineraries.
“They are not making any effort to add new places to the standard itinerary of the Church of the Nativity and a handful of other places, which groups always request,” Rishmawi said. “If they added it to their itineraries, it would make a huge difference.”
Other Christian historical sites in the West Bank basically have the same story as Mary’s Well. St.
St. George’s Church in Burkin, near Jenin, is revered as the third-oldest church in the Christian tradition; Zacchaeus’s House in Jericho is thought to be the place where Jesus met Zacchaeus, a tax collector; Bir Onah in Beit Jala is believed to be another well from which Mary drank. These places are among the many sites that only a handful of tourists visit.
On Thursday, Bir Onah, which international donors renovated last year, had no visitors in sight and no one nearby to explain the significance of the place or open the gate to the well.
Fadi Kattan, a tourism expert and owner of a restaurant in Bethlehem, concurred with Rishmawi.
“I agree that tour operators not including these sites on their itineraries is the main component, but the other component is [that] these sites are often difficult to access, being off the beaten track. For example, getting to Burkin to visit the church there is quite a challenge with the bypass roads,” Kattan said.
Since the second intifada, Israel has erected a number of bypass roads around the West Bank. Palestinian officials see them as an effort to separate Israelis and Palestinians and connect settlements to Israel proper.
Meanwhile, Israeli leaders view them as a security necessity, as many of their citizens do not feel safe driving through Palestinian villages and cities.
Kattan added that the lack of information on such sites also explains why they remain mostly unvisited.
“These places are not visible. When tourists and Christian pilgrims search online for what they would like to visit, these places are difficult to find. Marketing these places would make a substantial difference,” Kattan added.
Sami Khoury, president of the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association, said that it is difficult to include many sites in the northern West Bank and around Bethlehem, because of jam-packed itineraries.
“All of the traditional pilgrimage packages are very rigid and fixed,” Khoury said. “As a tour operator, we send our agents abroad to explain the different options and try to create the appropriate package for our clients. If we want to include, let’s say, sites in Nablus or Jenin, it will probably be at the expense of other key sites in Jerusalem – this is the same reason Bethlehem gets half a day rather than a full day,” Khoury added.
However, Khoury said that his organization is taking initial steps to offer additional sites on its itineraries, including holding a survey to determine which sites around the West Bank, especially in the north, tourists would like to visit.
The Palestinian Authority Tourism Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Back at the Church of the Nativity on Thursday afternoon, more buses were pulling up on an adjacent road and the line seemed to have become longer.