BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair will spend the night in one of Bethlehem’s poshest hotels on Tuesday to send a message to the world that the Holy Land is safe for tourists.
The former prime minister’s task is to boost the Palestinian economy as part of a drive to end the conflict with Israel. He is working to improve tourist access and facilities in Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birth place of Jesus.
Tourism to Bethlehem has picked up after a slump during the early years of a Palestinian uprising, but visitors are wary of spending the night despite the fact that it has long been one of the safest towns in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“I’m trying to illustrate that message by coming ... to spend the night here in Bethlehem,” Blair told a news conference at the hotel. “It’s a safe and good place to come and visit.”
Church leaders have been trying to convince pilgrims to visit and Bethlehem’s mayor said tourist numbers so far this year were at their highest level since 2000, when the uprising began. Christmas is the peak season.
But most visitors arrive in tour buses and stay just long enough to tour the Church of the Nativity and visit a souvenir shop selling olive wood crucifixes, before being ferried back across the Israeli checkpoint.
Bethlehem residents say Israel’s towering barrier blocking the main road from Jerusalem deters tourists and stifles the economy as well as taking land they seek for a state. Israel says the barrier is needed to keep out suicide bombers.
Israel and the Palestinians are due on Wednesday to hold their first formal talks since relaunching a long-stalled peace push at a U.S.-hosted conference last month.
Blair represents the Quartet of powers engaged in Middle peacemaking — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.
Writing by Rebecca Harrison; Editing by Matthew Tostevin