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Bethlehem hopes for Christmas miracle as new variant stops visitors

Bethlehem is readying for the holiday season and will go ahead with the lighting of the Christmas tree and a holiday market despite the new COVID-19 variant and fears of a new lockdown.
HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

RAMALLAH — Busily arranging the antiques in his small shop in the Manger Square near the Church of Nativity, Laith Adnan Sobh said he hopes this holiday season will be different from the previous Christmases during the pandemic.

Over the past two years, the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on his souvenir shop, but this year Sobh ordered more wood carvings to sell.

“I am taking a chance here. Should the city go under lockdown again like the previous two years, I will face new losses,” he told Al-Monitor. “We only work during the holiday season, and missing the season means colossal losses for us,” Sobh said.

“This year, however, there has been a limited influx of tourists to the city during the month of November, which has slightly improved the economic situation. It’s not the best season but better than nothing,” he added.

Sobh spoke fondly of pre-pandemic times, when tourists flocked to the city and his shop.

“In 2019, we had unprecedented tourism numbers. My shop was full of visitors from all over the world. This year, it is really important for the Palestinian government not to close down the city. We can still count on domestic tourism and local visitors if the city remains open,” he said.

Bethlehem’s residents, many of whom rely on tourism for their livelihoods, want their city to thrive during the holiday season, but they also fear the threat brought by the new COVID-19 variant.

Nina Atwan owns a Christmas decoration shop in the heart of the city. She also told Al-Monitor that she has noticed a slight improvement this year.

During the past two years, Atwan's shop had barely any customers. “The festivity and Christmas spirit was missing when the city was closed,” she told Al-Monitor. “Our shop does not depend on foreign tourism. However, limiting the celebrations to locals … created a sad atmosphere that overshadowed the joy of the holidays,” she added.

“The holidays mean cheerful and joyful festivities and atmosphere that last for two months," she said. "During this time, the city radiates light and joy, something that has been missing over the past two years.”

In a Nov. 27 press conference, the Bethlehem Municipality announced that with some health precautions, public Christmas events would resume, including a municipal Christmas tree and a 10-day Christmas market.

The next day, the Israeli authorities closed the international airport to foreign tourists, many of whom would have visited the Palestinian territories, following the spread of the new COVID-19 variant.

According to Bethlehem Mayor Antoine Suleiman, however, public festivities will go on. “We were expecting good tourist traffic this year. The closure of Israeli airports will greatly affect us, but will not stop from celebrating,” Suleiman told Al-Monitor.

“Under the current circumstances, the events will mainly be limited to local visitors from the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem, and we are really pinning our hopes on Palestinians in the occupied territories to boost the city’s economy,” he added.

He stressed that the events will be held under strict public safety measures, with temperature checks and masking requirements.

In 2019, the city of Bethlehem recorded its highest foreign tourism numbers, with 3.5 million tourists flocking to the city. The pandemic outbreak, however, brought a major setback to the city, where 80% of residents depend on tourism.

Despite some domestic tourism, the sector has barely been kept afloat, according to Elias al-Arja, head of the Arab Hotels Association and owner of the Bethlehem Hotel.

“We are working to keep hotels open with the hope that things will change for the better,” he told Al-Monitor.

“There have been hotel reservations this month, albeit limited. Some hotels reopened rooms that have been closed for a while. But the Israeli decision to close the airport killed our hopes. It seems that COVID-19 will ruin the season for us once more, and reservations are likely to be canceled,” Arja said.

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