Bethlehem welcomes Christmas tourists after pandemic lull

BETHEM (West Bank): Business is bouncing back in Bethlehem after two years in the doldrums during the Great Depression. pandemic caused by corona virusuplifting at the traditional birthplace of Jesus before the Christmas holiday.
The street is bustling with tour groups. Hotels are fully booked, and months of bloody Israeli-Palestinian fighting are unlikely to have much of an impact on the vital tourism industry.
Elias Arja, the head of the Bethlehem hotel association, said that tourists are yearning to visit the religious sites of the Holy Land after being subject to lockdowns and travel restrictions in recent years. He expects the recovery to continue next year.
Arja, who owns the Bethlehem hotel, said: “We expect that 2023 will be explosive and the business will be great because the whole world and especially the Christian tourists, all they all want to go back to the Holy Land.”
On a recent day, dozens of groups from almost every continent took selfies in front of the Church of the Nativity, built over the cave where Christians believe Jesus was born. A giant Christmas tree sparkles in the adjoining Manger Square, and tourists crowd the shops to buy olive wood crosses and other souvenirs.
Christmas is usually the peak tourist season in Bethlehem, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, just a few miles southeast of Jerusalem. In the pre-pandemic period, thousands of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world came to worship.
But those numbers have plummeted during the pandemic. Although tourism has yet to fully recover, visitor arrivals are a welcome and encouraging sign.
“The city has become a city of ghosts,” said Saliba Nissan, standing next to a manger about 1.3 meters (4 feet) wide inside the Bethlehem New Store, the olive wood factory he co-owns. with his brother. The store was packed with Americans traveling by bus.
Since Palestine does not have its own airport, most international visitors pass through Israel. Israel’s Ministry of Tourism is expecting about 120,000 Christian visitors during the Christmas week.
Compared to an all-time high of about 150,000 visitors in 2019, but 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 provide a special shuttle bus between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve to help visitors get around.
“If God willing, this year we will go back to pre-coronavirus times and even better,” the mayor of Bethlehem said. Hanna Hanania.
He said about 15,000 people attended the Christmas tree lighting in Bethlehem recently, and international delegations, artists and singers are expected to take part in the celebrations this year.
“The recovery has already begun significantly, although he said that the recent violence and continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank have always had some effect on the tourism industry,” he said.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. The internationally recognized Palestinian Authority has limited autonomy in some territories, 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 bloodiest since 2006. Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were militants, but… throwing youths and a number of people unrelated to the violence were also killed.
The fighting, which is mainly concentrated in the northern West Bank, spread to the Bethlehem area earlier this month, when Israeli troops killed a teenager in the nearby Deheishe refugee camp. Palestinians staged a day-long strike across Bethlehem to protest the killing.
However, residents seem determined not to let the war detract from the joy of Christmas.
Bassem Giacaman, the third-generation owner of Blessing Gift Shop, founded by his grandfather in 1925, says the pandemic has devastated his business more than the violence and political tension.
Covered in sawdust from carving figurines, jewelry and religious symbols out of olive wood, he says it will take him years to recover. He used to have 10 people work for him. Today, he uses half of that, sometimes less, depending on need.
“Politics (situations) have an impact, but nothing major,” Giacaman said. “We’ve had it for 60-70 years, and it goes on for a month, then it stops and the tourists come back.”


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