JERUSALEM, April 6 (AFP) - Twenty pilgrims waited in a short line to catch a glimpse of the spot at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christians believe Jesus was buried and rose from the dead 2,000 years ago.

With just under two weeks until Easter Sunday, revered as the day of Jesus' Resurrection, church guard Waji Nusseibeh lamented the diminutive crowd, saying that one year ago -- during millennium celebrations -- pilgrims had to stand for hours to view the holy site in Jerusalem's walled Old City.

"Last year you had to wait in a long line to get into the church or climb the steps of the calvary," said Nusseibeh, who doubles as a tour guide at the church. "Sometimes it took five hours to get to the tomb."

Not this year.

The Holy Land's tourist boom typically heralding Easter's approach and the Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins Saturday night, has been sharply tempered by cascading violence in the region, depressing the travel industry and forcing thousands out of work.

The travel plunge has been particularly painful in light of the high hopes born of last year's record-breaking millennial tourism.

More than 470 people have been killed as a direct result of the Palestinian uprising which broke out in late September, prompting governments like the United States and Britain to issue travel warnings for parts of Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Some 64,000 Israelis have been thrown out of work because of the economic crunch caused by the tide of Israeli-Palestinian violence, according to government statistics.

Israel's tourist industry was the hardest hit with employment in Israeli hotels slipping to 25,700 at the end of 2000 compared with 30,800 during the first nine months before the unrest erupted, according to official statistics.

"I have been in Israel for 20 years, and we have never had such a bad situation" said Michelle Guetj, 44, reservations manager at the Dan Pearl hotel, located just outside the Old City's ancient stone walls.

"This time we are not going to see the end," she said, glancing around at the hotel's completely empty lobby.

Guetj said that only 15 percent of the hotel's 110 rooms are currently occupied, and only four have been rented by non-Israeli tourists.

Following the start of the Palestinian revolt, Israel's hotel industry took in 1.08 billion shekels ($250 million) between October and December 2000, a 27-percent slump from the same period in 1999, Israel's official statistics bureau said.

The preceding nine months had seen a significant growth in revenue with hotels taking in 4.38 billion shekels ($1.09 billion), a 21-percent increase over the same period the previous year, the statistics office found.

Israel had projected the number of tourists to swell to over three million in 2000, with pilgrims expected to follow in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II who toured the region in March last year to mark the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus's birth.

In fact, said Oren Drori, head of the marketing and strategy department at Israel's ministry of tourism, until the violence "we were on a good pace to reach 3.2 million."

"But in the last quarter of 2000 we experienced, on average, a 45 percent decrease each month from the same month during the previous year," Drori said.

"It was a loss of expected foreign currency of close to one billion US dollars, from a half million visitors who were supposed to come, but did not."

"The impact is huge, no doubt about it," Drori added.

"The impact is not only on us but on everyone in the area, especially on the Jordanians and the Palestinian Authority," which is suffering from a chocking Israeli blockade that has left it almost bankrupt.

Father Emilio Barcena, director of Jerusalem's Christian Information Center, said that after last year's massive Easter pilgrimage a steady flow of pilgrims continued to descend on Israel until the intifada swept the region.

"Now people refuse to come," he said. "People are afraid to come. We tried to do our best to bring people. Without pilgrims the country suffers."

For some pilgrims, as with so many people in this volatile region, the decision-making process boiled down to divine inspiration.

When asked why she decided to visit during this violent period, Joy Smith, 44, of Tennessee responded, "Faith."

"The Lord Jesus Christ promises always to protect us," Smith said as she headed out into the Holy Sepulchre's courtyard, peopled largely by idle tour guides and Israeli police officers.

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