Christmas in Bethlehem: Gilded treasures, but few tourists

But few visitors expect to see it during the upcoming Christmas holiday season.

Biblical Bethlehem has struggled since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic nearly two years ago. Christmas is normally a peak season for tourism in the traditional birthplace of Jesus, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In pre-pandemic time, thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world celebrated in the Church of the Nativity and the nearby Manger Square.

Israel has reopened its borders to vaccinated tourists earlier this month, but relatively few are expected to travel to Bethlehem this holiday season, and not nearly as many as in the record year before the pandemic. Most tourists visiting Bethlehem fly into Israel because the West Bank has no airport.

Many of Bethlehem’s hotels closed and shopkeepers struggled to stay afloat. Aladdin Subuh, a shopkeeper whose store sits right next to Manger Square, said he only opens his doors to ventilate the store.

“It’s almost Christmas and there’s no one. Imagine that, ”he said, looking at the few passers-by with the hope of seeing a stranger looking for a souvenir. “For two years, no business. It’s like dying slowly. ”

Although the pandemic ruined the Holy Land’s once thriving tourism industry for Israelis and Palestinians alike, for tourism-dependent Bethlehem, the impact was particularly severe. Israel, the main gateway for foreign tourists, has banned most foreign visitors over the past year and a half before this month’s reopening.

Just over 30,000 tourists entered Israel in the first half of November, compared to 421,000 in November 2019, according to Israel’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The Palestinian self-government, which manages autonomous enclaves in the West Bank, has only provided limited support, in the form of excise duties and training programs, to hoteliers, tour operators and tour guides, said Majed Ishaq, director of marketing at Palestinian Tourism. Ministry. He said the ministry is launching a campaign to encourage Palestinian citizens of Israel to visit Bethlehem and other West Bank cities during the holiday season. He added that he hopes the number of foreign tourists will be 10% to 20% of pre-pandemic figures.

Others are not so optimistic.

“I don’t think tourism will return very soon,” said Fadi Kattan, a Palestinian chef and hotelier in the Old Town of Bethlehem. The pandemic forced him to close his Hosh Syrian inn in March 2020, and for months he had to leave his staff.

He said it is neither financially nor practically feasible to reopen before Christmas, especially due to a new wave of coronavirus infections across Europe. He said it would take years to regain the “combined impact of the two-year pandemic” on Bethlehem’s economy – from hotels and restaurants to farmers, grocers and cleaners who depend on their business.

“To reopen in security we need to see that there is a long-term perspective,” he said.

On a recent day at the Church of the Nativity, the crown jewel of Bethlehem, an isolated group of Italian tourists entered the 6th-century basilica that in years before COVID-19 would have a line extending the door. Municipal workers began turning on Christmas lights behind them in Manger Square.

The church has experienced a multimillion-dollar facelift since 2013 that was organized by a Palestinian presidential committee. It restored gold-tiled mosaics and marble floors to its former glory and made major structural repairs to the UNESCO heritage site, one of the oldest churches in Christendom.

Further work remains to be done, said Mazen Karam, director of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, the group leading some of the restorations at the church. The company has already cost $ 17 million, but Karam said an additional $ 2 million is needed to renovate the church’s stones and install firefighting and microclimate systems.

A separate project by the Greek Orthodox Church to renovate the once soot-inlaid iconostasis – a late 18th-century wooden screen separating the sanctuary from the nave of the building – has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, but now almost ends before Christmas after three years. of laborious work.

“It’s a big challenge,” said Saki Pappadopoulos, a wood carver with Artis, a Greek restoration company leading the project.

But Father Issa Thaljieh, a Greek Orthodox priest at the Church of the Nativity, remains optimistic ahead of the holiday season.

“Thank God, day after day we can see more groups coming to Bethlehem – not staying in Bethlehem, just maybe for a visit – but it’s a good sign,” he said, standing on the church’s newly refined marble floor. or an elevated platform. “Bethlehem without tourists, without people coming to Bethlehem, is nothing.”

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