Bethlehem welcomes Christmas tourists after pandemic lull

BETHLEHEM (West Bank): Business is rebounding in Bethlehem after two years of slump during the coronavirus pandemic, boosting morale in the traditional birthplace of Jesus ahead of the Christmas holidays.
The streets are bustling with groups of tourists. Hotels are full and months of deadly Israeli-Palestinian fighting appear to have little effect on the vital tourism industry.
Elias Arja, head of the Bethlehem Hotel Association, said tourists are hungry to visit religious sites in the Holy Land after facing lockdowns and travel restrictions in recent years. He expects the rebound to continue next year.
“We expect 2023 to be booming and business to be great as the whole world, and Christian religious tourists in particular, all want to return to the Holy Land,” said Arja, owner of the Bethlehem Hotel.
Recently, dozens of groups from virtually every continent posed for selfies outside the Church of the Nativity, built over the cave where Christians believe Jesus was born. A giant Christmas tree twinkled in the adjacent Manger Square, and tourists thronged the shops to buy olive wood crosses and other souvenirs.
Christmas is normally peak season for tourism in Bethlehem, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a few miles southeast of Jerusalem. In pre-pandemic times, thousands of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world came to celebrate.
But those numbers have plummeted during the pandemic. Although tourism has not fully recovered, the hordes of visitors are a welcome improvement and an encouraging sign.
“The city has become a ghost town,” said Saliba Nissan, standing next to a nativity scene about 1.3 meters (4 feet) wide inside the Bethlehem New Store, the factory of olive wood which he owns jointly with his brother. The store was packed with Americans on a bus tour.
As the Palestinians do not have their own airport, most international visitors pass through Israel. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism expects some 120,000 Christian tourists during Christmas week.
That compares to its all-time high of around 150,000 visitors in 2019, but it’s much better than last year, when the country’s skies were closed to most international visitors. As it has done in the past, the ministry plans to offer special shuttles between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve to help visitors get back and forth.
“God willing, we will return this year to where things were before the coronavirus, and we will get even better,” said the mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Hanania.
He said around 15,000 people attended Bethlehem’s recent Christmas tree lighting and international delegations, artists and singers are all expected to take part in the celebrations this year.
“The recovery has started in a meaningful way,” he said, although he said recent violence and Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank are still having some influence on tourism.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East War. The internationally recognized Palestinian Authority has limited autonomy in parts of the territory, including Bethlehem.
The Christmas season comes at the end of a bloody year in the Holy Land. Some 150 Palestinians and 31 Israelis have been killed in Israeli-Palestinian fighting in the West Bank and East Jerusalem this year, according to official figures, making 2022 the deadliest year since 2006. Israel says most Palestinians killed were militants, but stone-throwers and people not involved in the violence were also killed.
The fighting, largely concentrated in the northern West Bank, reached the Bethlehem area earlier this month when the Israeli army killed a teenager in the nearby Deheishe refugee camp. Palestinians staged a day-long strike across Bethlehem to protest the killing.
The locals, however, seem determined not to let the fighting put a damper on the Christmas cheer.
Bassem Giacaman, the third-generation owner of the Blessing gift shop, founded in 1925 by his grandfather, said the pandemic was far more devastating to his business than violence and political tensions.
Covered in sawdust from carving olive wood figurines, jewelry and religious symbols, he said it would take him years to recover. He once had 10 people working for him. Today, he employs half, sometimes less, depending on demand.
“The political (situation) is affecting, but nothing major,” Giacaman said. “We’ve had it for 60 to 70 years, and it lasts for a month, then it stops and the tourists come back.”


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