Bethlehem welcomes Christmas visitors after pandemic subsides

Bethlehem, West Bank –

After a two-year slump during the coronavirus pandemic, business in Bethlehem is rebounding, lifting spirits in Jesus’ traditional birthplace ahead of the Christmas holiday.

The streets are packed with tour groups. Hotels are full and months of bloody fighting between Israel and Palestine appear to have had little impact on the vital tourism industry.

Elias Arja, head of the Bethlehem Hotel Association, said tourists were eager to visit religious sites in the Holy Land after the lockdown and travel restrictions in recent years. He expects the rebound to continue into next year.

“We expect 2023 to be booming and good business because the whole world, especially Christian religious tourists, want to come back to the Holy Land,” said Arja, who owns the Bethlehem hotel.

On a recent day, dozens of groups from nearly every continent took selfies in front of the Church of the Nativity, built on top of the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born. A huge Christmas tree sparkled in the adjacent Manger Square, and tourists flocked to shops to buy olive-wood crosses and other souvenirs.

Christmas is usually the peak tourist season for Bethlehem, which is located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, just a few miles southeast of Jerusalem. Before the pandemic, 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 yet fully recovered, the flocks of tourists are a welcome and encouraging sign of progress.

“The city has become a city of ghosts,” said Saliba Nissan, standing by the roughly 1.3-meter (4-foot) wide manger inside Bethlehem’s new store, an olive-wood factory he co-owns with his brother. The store was full of Americans traveling by bus.

Since the Palestinians do not have their own airport, most international tourists come through Israel. Israel’s tourism ministry expects about 120,000 Christian tourists during the Christmas season.

That compares with an all-time high of around 150,000 visitors in 2019, but is far better than last year when the country’s skies were closed to most international visitors. As in the past, the ministry plans to offer special shuttle buses between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve to help tourists get back and forth.

Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Hanania said: “God willing, we will be back to where we were before the coronavirus this year, if not better.”

About 15,000 people attended the recent tree lighting in Bethlehem, and international delegations, artists and singers are expected to take part in this year’s festivities, he said.

“The recovery has started,” he said, though he said the recent violence, as well as Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, always had some impact on tourism.

Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East War. The internationally recognized Palestinian Authority has limited autonomy in parts, including Bethlehem.

Christmas comes at the end of a bloody year in the Holy Land. Some 150 Palestinians and 31 Israelis have been killed in Israeli-Palestinian firefights in the West Bank and East Jerusalem this year, making 2022 the deadliest year since 2006, according to official figures. Throwing youths and some who were not involved in the violence were also killed.

Fighting, centered mostly in the northern West Bank, spilled into the Bethlehem area earlier this month when Israeli troops killed a teenager in the nearby Tehishah refugee camp. Palestinians held a one-day strike in Bethlehem to protest the killing.

However, residents appear determined not to let the fighting detract from the Christmas cheer.

Bassem Giacaman, the third-generation owner of the Blessing Gift Shop, which was founded by his grandfather in 1925, said the pandemic has done far more damage to his business than violence and political tensions.

He is covered in sawdust from carving olive-wood figurines, jewelry and religious symbols, which he says will take him years to recover. He used to have 10 people working for him. Today, he employs half that number, sometimes even less, depending on demand.

“The politics (situation) does have an impact, but it’s not a big deal,” Jakaman said. “We’ve had it for 60 to 70 years and it goes on for a month and then it stops and the tourists come back.”

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