Bethlehem : Christmas is approaching and pilgrims and tourists have begun to arrive, crowding the souvenir shops that line the narrow streets and alleys of Bethlehem, the biblical town revered as Jesus’ birthplace, says AP report.
But when visitors choose to take a piece of the Holy Land back home with them, they better check the labels. Many souvenirs, including the West Bank town’s trademark rosary beads, are imported from abroad, mainly China.
A small number of souvenir shops are now trying to fight the trend, stocking their shelves almost exclusively with locally made products. Shopkeepers say that while their wares may be more expensive, the quality is much better and they give an important boost to the struggling economy.
“I’ve got nothing that is made overseas except for one thing, that’s the magnets. It’s something that sells for cheap and people want them,” said Bassem Giacaman, owner of the Blessings Gift Shop and The Olive Wood Factory. “Everything else is made locally so I can keep the local economy working.”
Some 120,000 people are expected to visit the Holy Land this holiday season, half of them Christian, according to Israel’s Tourism Ministry. Many will visit Bethlehem, where globalisation has left its imprint like everywhere else. Foreign-made crafts, especially Chinese ones, have come to represent a big part of the market here, including Christmas souvenirs.
While there are no official statistics, local officials and businessmen estimate that nearly half of the products, perhaps more, are imported. Giacaman keeps just a few imported products in his store, most of them hidden in a small box beneath a counter. He takes them out to show customers and compare them to Palestinian-made ones.
“This is a plastic Jesus baby made in China and this is a ceramic one made in Bethlehem, and these are the olive wood rosaries that I make and the Chinese ones,” he said, proudly showing what he said was the superior craftsmanship of the locally made goods. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, occupied territory the Palestinians hope will be part of their future state.
Tourism remains strong, but the rest of the economy has long languished, in part because of Israeli restrictions. Tourists must pass through a checkpoint in Israel’s separation barrier to reach the town. The “Visit Palestine Center,” located in a 200-year-old house along a stone stairway just a few hundred meters (yards) from The Church of the Nativity, promotes a “Made in Palestine” label.”There’s a big influx of imported products and a lot of traditional crafts are declining gradually,” said Samy Khoury, the center’s founder and general manager.
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