App to help ease crowds in Bethlehem

Churches go digital as more tourists visit biblical city

Bethlehem is buzzing, with more tourists expected this Christmas than have visited the biblical city in years, causing the kind of problem that modern technology was almost born to deal with.

Such are the crowds at the church built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born that the authorities are planning to introduce a reservation system through an app.

The app, which will be introduced next year, is aimed at ensuring a regular flow of tourists at the Church of the Nativity, where visitors sometimes have to wait hours to see the underground grotto where many Christians believe Jesus was born in a manger.

Details of the app are still being worked out.

One priest said it would apply only to tour groups visiting the site in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but the Palestinian Tourism Ministry said it would be for everyone.

While there are concerns visits could become unnecessarily complicated, the three churches that share control of the site - the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches - say such an app is needed.

"There are times when for us there are specific prayers, celebrations, or masses, or with all the sects praying," Orthodox priest Issa Thaljieh said.

"So of course there is a huge squeeze. With the app, everyone will know what time to enter and which groups are there, so it will become more organised."


The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century. Its mosaics were recently restored in a major project.

Palestinian Deputy Tourism Minister Ali Abu Srour said the app would also provide information about the church.

Ms Barbora Salyova, a 29-year-old tourist visiting Israel and Jordan from Slovakia, said the app could be useful for pilgrims like herself.

"This is a step we definitely planned to make," she said. "We also came for religious reasons so this was an automatic stop."

Tourism in Bethlehem is enjoying its best season in years, with hotels reporting especially high occupancy rates for the Christmas period. Mr Elias Al-Arja, chairman of the Hotels Association Palestine, said: "We had occupancy rates of 74 per cent or 72 per cent in 2018," he said, adding that it is expected to rise this month.

In all, around 2.8 million tourists have visited the Palestinian territories this year, up from 2.5 million last year, according to the Tourism Ministry.

Mr Abu Srour said the primary reason is a decrease in violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank this year, and the ministry has reached out to tourists across the globe.

Israel is also enjoying record tourism figures, and many visitors take day trips to Bethlehem and other West Bank sites fromthe Jewish state. - AFP