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Bethlehem hoped to recoup some coronavirus losses this Christmas. Then came Omicron

Some tourists were expected to return this year, but new COVID strain and resulting Israeli ban on foreigners mean city will likely see second year with little income

Palestinians prepare to welcome in a month of muted Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on Friday, December 3, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)
Palestinians prepare to welcome in a month of muted Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on Friday, December 3, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — For the second year in a row, the West Bank city of Bethlehem, which normally serves as a draw for Christians from all over the world, is staring down the possibility of a Christmas season with barely any tourists.

Gazing out at a wide courtyard facing the ancient Church of the Nativity earlier this month, Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman was despondent.

“You see the square? Normally, at this point, it would already be full of people,” he said.

The sudden appearance of the Omicron coronavirus variant late last month, and the subsequent Israeli ban on foreign tourists, has dealt a blow to a city highly dependent on the annual Christmas pilgrimage.

Christians revere Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, and holiday business — whether with Christians on pilgrimage or nonbelievers partaking in the festivities — had been booming before the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, nearly 1.5 million visitors came to the city, which officials said was a record high.

But in 2020 the pandemic threw the economically vital holiday season into a deep freeze. Revenues crashed as flights were grounded and international travel slowed to a trickle.

“There wasn’t any work. Only a few people came in for Christmas, mostly people already living here,” said Elias al-Arja, who owns the Bethlehem Hotel, a short walk from the Church of the Nativity.

As the holiday season approached this year, tour guides and hotel owners hoped to find their footing again, as thousands of foreigners booked hotels in town. Numbers were still far below pre-pandemic levels, and it wouldn’t have been enough to signal a recovery — but it would have been better than nothing.

“Fifty percent of our economy is already on pause. Even this year, we saw that some hotels couldn’t open, because there wouldn’t be enough [customers] to cover the costs of running,” Salman said.

The Omicron ban on foreign tourists is currently set to expire on December 13, but may yet be extended.

“When Israel takes decisions about this, it makes them without considering that there’s a people here that’s trying to realize economic stability and achieve its goals,” said Salman.

“Even if the ban is lifted, people have lost trust in us. Time after time, the tourists make plans — only to see things fall apart,” said Tony Khashram, who owns a tourism agency in East Jerusalem.

Al-Arja said that he has little hope of turning a profit this Christmas.

“This travel ban finished off what little we’d been able to cobble together in terms of reservations over the past few months. Everything we worked for was destroyed,” he lamented.

Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman speaks with The Times of Israel in his office overlooking the Church of the Nativity on Friday, December 3, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

International health officials have expressed serious concern over the Omicron variant. Many countries have tightened restrictions, banning flights from southern Africa and refusing entry to those who had stayed in countries with an estimated high Omicron infection rate.

Israel took the unusual step of banning all foreign travelers, just a few weeks after it had tentatively reopened its skies to tourists. Only Japan and Morocco have joined the Jewish state in such a blanket prohibition, according to The New York Times.

“The key here is caution and minimal risks until we learn more,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters in late November. “To this end we need to maintain tight control over the country’s borders. Every day, we will learn more and know more.”

Palestinians and Arab Israelis, for now, can still patronize the holy sites during the coming month. And as opposed to last year, some 500 Gazan Christians will be granted permits to visit their families in the West Bank for the holiday.

Saturday night saw hundreds of Palestinians gather in the old town square to light the city’s Christmas tree.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and Salman lit up the tree in front of a large crowd as fireworks burst overhead. In his speech, Shtayyeh quoted from both the Old Testament, which Christians revere as divine writ, and the Quran, Islam’s holiest scripture.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh ceremonially lights the Bethlehem Christmas tree on Saturday, December 4, 2021 (Credit: WAFA)

But revenues from internal tourism have traditionally been relatively slim: just 11% of the total in 2018, according to PA official figures. The big money is in visitors from abroad, who are likely to be scarce this year.

“Hopefully this year we’ll see an improvement in ‘internal tourism’ from Arabs in the north,” said Khashram, adding that increased Arab Israeli pilgrimages could help make up for some of the losses.

The ban on foreigners entering the country may yet be lifted before Christmas, should health officials determine that the new viral strain is not a serious threat. But Bethlehem residents say the economic damage has already been done.

“People can’t just travel at the drop of a hat. We plan these things well in advance — and once they’re canceled, that’s it,” al-Arja said.

The Palestinian Authority has granted some tax exemptions for struggling hotels. But Ramallah, which already faces a yawning budget deficit, did not hand out mass subsidies for the tourism industry. In neighboring Israel, authorities shelled out NIS 300 million ($94.5 million) in late August to prop up its own ailing tourism sector.

“Israel is a state, and we just have our Authority. It can’t support us in that way. What it could give, it gave. But it wasn’t enough,” al-Arja said.

Bethlehem shopkeepers said they saw little reason to believe that matters would substantially improve by the end of December.

“It would be better if I just closed my shop. At this point, I’ll just be burning through money by paying electricity bills,” said one store owner, Ibrahim, who declined to be identified by his last name.

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