In the town of Je­sus’ birth, crafts­men take on China

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

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’ (PBUH) birth­place. 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.

Lo­cal 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 glob­al­iza­tion 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.

The Visit Pales­tine Cen­ter, which started as an on­line store and travel guide five years ago, works with nearly 100 work­shops and home­based ar­ti­sans through­out the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries and in Pales­tinian refugee camps in Jor­dan. It fea­tures Pales­tinian tra­di­tional crafts, in­clud­ing Christ­mas-re­lated ones like olive wood rosaries and mother of pearl or­na­ments. The cen­ter tar­gets in­de­pen­dent trav­el­ers and takes a fair trade ap­proach to its busi­ness.

Pales­tinian-made prod­ucts

Try­ing to sell only Pales­tinian-made prod­ucts comes with chal­lenges. “Main­tain­ing con­sis­tency and qual­ity, the right lead time, fig­ur­ing how much pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity the pro­duc­ers can give,” are some of them, ex­plained Khoury. Then there’s the is­sue of price. Ma­her Canawati, owner of the Three Arches sou­venir shop, sells lo­cally made gifts and even has a wood workshop in the back. But he keeps room for im­ports as well.

“We have to carry all kinds of mer­chan­dise in our shop be­cause we have dif­fer­ent mar­kets and dif­fer­ent pil­grims with dif­fer­ent bud­gets,” said Canawati, whose fam­ily has pro­vided ser­vices to pil­grims since the 16th cen­tury. Canawati said he wants to give his cus­tomers op­tions, and he is clear about the dif­fer­ences. “A dozen of made-in-China rosaries sell for $4 while a dozen of lo­cally made sell for $25,” he said. “The made-in-China Je­sus ba­bies sell for $20 and the Beth­le­hem ones sell for $64.”

While craft workshop own­ers grum­ble about for­eign im­ports, not ev­ery­one be­lieves the im­ports have se­ri­ously threat­ened lo­cal mer­chants and ar­ti­sans. “It’s a busi­ness,” said Samir Hazboun, Chair­man of the Beth­le­hem Cham­ber of Com­merce. “I’m not aware of any­one run­ning out of busi­ness be­cause of the im­ports.” —

AP

BETH­LE­HEM: In this Mon­day, Dec 12, 2016 photo, a shop­keeper walks through a sou­venir shop in the West Bank city. —

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