Safe But Empty

NAZARETH, Israel — Not a single rocket has been launched into northern Israel since the Aug. 14 ceasefire between Hezbollah and Israel. Here, the streets of the city where Jesus spent much of his life are once again packed with residents going to work and schoolchildren dressed in crisp, blue uniforms.

But while life in this mountaintop city of 70,000 Christians and Muslims has returned to normal, there are few Christian pilgrims here to appreciate it.

“The tour groups canceled when the war began, but now that the war is over they haven’t returned,” said Samira Abu Nasser, a Catholic travel agent whose agency is located just down the road from the Basilica of the Annunciation — the church that, according to tradition, is built on the site of the home of Mary.

“For anyone who relies on tourism, it is very difficult,” she said.

Like numerous other northern Israeli cities, towns and villages, Nazareth was directly hit by Hezbollah rocket fire.

On July 18, Katyusha rockets rained down on a residential neighborhood, killing a 9-year-old boy and his 3-year-old brother.

As the war raged, tourism to Israel was 26% lower in July than it was the same period last year, according to the Ministry of Tourism, which anticipates even gloomier figures for the month of August.

In Nazareth, hotel occupancy plummeted “from more requests than we could accommodate to practically zero,” acknowledged Tareq Shihada, director of the Nazareth Culture and Tourism Association. “Even Israeli citizens didn’t come.”

Even now, he said, “it’s heartbreaking to see a hotel with more than 200 rooms but only three occupants.”

Shihada estimated that “thousands” of Nazarenes employed in tourism and related industries have been affected by the dearth of pilgrims.

“Imagine a single hotel that is forced to close for a couple of weeks — more than 1,200 people find themselves unemployed, and multiply that number by 10,” he said. “Every restaurant employs 10 to 12 waiters, and they have no work. We’re also talking about souvenir shops, tour buses, taxis and many other businesses.”

The recent conflict was an especially hard blow because, the tourism official said, Nazareth’s tourism industry has been booming for the past couple of years, after rebounding from the Palestinian uprising that began in late 2000.

“Most of 2000 was fantastic,” Shihada recalled. “The Pope came to Nazareth in March 2000 to celebrate the Annunciation in the place where Christianity began. Then the intifada (uprising) started and it was very bad. Even though Nazareth was safe, Bethlehem was closed [by the Israeli army] and pilgrims postponed their trips. You don’t come on a pilgrimage if you can’t visit Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee.”

Since the conflict with Hezbollah, pilgrims and tour operators are taking a wait-and-see attitude, Shihada said.

“The tour operators abroad told me they are waiting for stability, peace and quiet,” he said. “They said they’d spent a lot of money marketing the Holy Land during the past two to three years, and that every time things pick up, the security situation deteriorates. They’re tired of the situation.”

So are local residents, who cannot understand why pilgrims have not returned to this holy city, which is so rich in Christian history and culture.

A month after the cease-fire, there are very few tour buses in Nazareth and the souvenir shops are almost deserted.

“We have no business,” said a longtime shopkeeper who gave her name as Cohar, whose store, which sells Nativity scenes and stuffed camels, had no customers. “We didn’t work during the war — there were no pilgrims to sell to — and now business is still very bad.”

The Israeli government has just earmarked $8 million to market the north of Israel to the rest of the world. 

Like many Nazarenes, Shihada is hoping that Christian leaders around the world will encourage the faithful to visit the region.

Said Shihada, “It is up to the Church to bring pilgrims back to the Holy Land.”

 Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.