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Holy Land Prepares for Tourists on Jesus’ 2,000th Birthday

December 3, 1996

NAZARETH, Israel (AP) _ Jesus’ 2,000th birthday is approaching, and hopes are high that millions of Christians will come to the Holy Land to celebrate.

But new turmoil in the Middle East could spoil the party.

``We all understand that tourism is linked to peace,″ Ilan Oren, director of 2000 planning in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, said this week. ``All this will happen only if the peace process goes on.″

In anticipation of a flood of pilgrims, Nazareth is undergoing a $100 million facelift. On stone streets where Jesus once may have walked, asphalt and cement are being stripped and replaced with limestone. New hotels are sprouting up along the Mount of the Precipice, where the Bible says angry townspeople tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

In Bethlehem, Palestinian officials are scrambling to make plans for the millennium _ including replacing a tour bus parking lot with a spacious piazza at the site where Jesus is believed to have been born.

Religious leaders and tourism officials in Nazareth were thrilled by an unprecedented papal decree encouraging pilgrimages to the Holy Land in 2000.

Israel’s Tourism Ministry estimates that between 4 million and 7 million visitors could come to the Holy Land _ especially Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth _ in 2000, up from an annual average of 2.5 million.

The country seems ill-prepared to handle such an influx: Its airport can serve 4 million people a year at most, and it only has 38,000 hotel rooms, with another 12,000 under construction.

Having turned over control of Bethlehem to Palestinians a year ago, Israel is focusing its millennium efforts on Nazareth, a long-neglected Arab-populated city of 60,000 in the Galilee.

A complete overhaul of the city is under way, aimed at renovating the old parts of the city, connecting Nazareth’s religious sites with scenic walkways, and ending the perpetual traffic jams in front of the two churches of the Annunciation _ one Roman Catholic, one Greek Orthodox _ where Christian tradition holds that the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to the son of God.

Planners hope the renovations _ which include plans for as many as eight new hotels _ will double the number of annual visitors here, currently about 900,000.

The goals are much the same in Bethlehem _ where a committee is working on an ``emergency master plan″ for renovations _ and looking for international donors.

Sweden has pledged $2.5 million to rehabilitate Bethlehem’s old city _ construction is to start in May _ and Italy and Germany have pledged another $2 million. An international competition is planned for the redesign of Manger Square, currently a parking lot.

Hind Khoury, an economist on the planning committee, says the city faces two major problems: lack of money and experience on the Palestinian side, and Israel’s political and economic closure of the city, which has left Bethlehem surrounded by Israeli army checkpoints and guard posts.

``It looks like a battle zone _ who would want to come here?″ she asked on Tuesday.

During deadly clashes between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers across the West Bank in September, Israel blocked tour buses from entering Bethlehem, forcing pilgrims to walk to the city through Israeli military positions.

Political uncertainty in the region _ aggravated since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office this summer _ has made it almost impossible to attract private investment from abroad, said Khoury, who hopes the celebrations will create pressure for change.

If not _ ``if the situation goes on without peace ... many people may not come,″ said Monsignor Kamal-Hanna Bathish, head of the Vatican’s committee on 2000 celebrations in the Holy Land.

Political unrest already has hurt tourism here. After record years in 1994 and 1995, tourism to Israel dropped sharply in 1996 following suicide bombings in the spring and worsening relations with the Palestinians after Netanyahu’s election in May.

Tourism officials hope the millennium celebrations will help. But ``it depends on what happens in the region,″ said Mark Feldman of the Ziontours travel agency in Jerusalem.

``The year 2000 is a powerful marketing tool to bring pilgrims here. ... But if there’s danger, pilgrims are no different from any other tourists. They won’t come.″

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