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An Israeli tourist monopoly? Bethlehem's Manger Square

It was a bumper year for tourism in Bethlehem in 2010. According to Palestinian figures, 1.4 million people visited the West Bank town and traditional birthplace of Jesus, up sixty percent on last year. As in 2009, all hotels were fully booked over Christmas, when 90,000 people descended on Manger Square and its environs.

But somehow, these staggering figures did not stem the flow of "yes, but" stories making their way into the British press over the Christmas period. Such stories dutifully presented the good news about Bethlehem's "unprecedented tourist boom" at the outset before devoting the remainder to imbuing readers with the sense that all is actually not so well and that Israel is to blame.

This phenomenon is not new. Year on year, Middle East correspondents file the same stories, with some reporters so bored of being called upon to do so that they created a Facebook group called, "Reporters against whiny Christmas stories in Bethlehem". Nonetheless, most re-delivered the goods this December.

Palestinian accusations of Israeli ‘theft' of tourist revenues

One of the most oft-repeated falsehoods in Christmas Middle East media coverage is that Israel somehow "steals" tourism revenues from Bethlehem. This stems from the fact that most of the 1.4 million Christians who visited the town this year will have been participants in pre-packaged tours of Christian sites across Israel, visiting dozens of places over the course of about a week. As such they do not stay in Bethlehem for more than a few hours, before returning to Israel for the next tourist stop.

This basic reality, however, is morphed into a tale of the Goliath Israel throttling away at the livelihoods of Palestinian Davids who are trying to sell their wares and simply get by.

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