BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Just before Christmas, a large wooden screen – once soothed by the candles of millions of worshipers – is returning to its gilded glory in the Eastern Church, built on the site where many believe Jesus was born.
But few visitors are expected to see it during the upcoming Christmas holiday season.
Biblical Bethlehem has been battling since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic almost two years ago. Christmas is normally the peak season for tourism in the traditional birthplace of Jesus, located on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In pre-pandemic times, thousands of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world celebrated at the Church of the Nativity and in the square next to Manger.
Israel 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 much as in the record year that preceded the pandemic. Most tourists visiting Bethlehem fly to Israel as the West Bank does not have an airport.
Many of Bethlehem hotels have closed and traders have struggled to keep up. Aladdin Subuh, a trader whose shop is located near Manger Square, said he opens his doors just to ventilate the shop.
“It’s almost Christmas and no one is there. “Imagine it.” he said, observing the few passers-by in the hope that he would spot a stranger looking for a souvenir. “For two years without work. “It’s like dying slowly.”
Although the pandemic has hurt the once-thriving Holy Land tourism industry for Israelis and Palestinians, for tourism-dependent Bethlehem, the impact has been particularly severe. Israel, the main gateway for foreign tourists, had banned most foreign visitors for the past year and a half before reopening this month.
Just over 30,000 tourists entered Israel in the first half of November, compared to 421,000 in November 2019, according to the Israeli Interior Ministry.
The Palestinian Authority, which administers autonomous enclaves in the West Bank, has provided only limited support, in the form of tax exemptions and training programs, for hoteliers, tour operators and tour guides, said Majed Ishaq, director of marketing at the Ministry. Palestinian Tourism. He said the ministry was launching a campaign to encourage Israeli Palestinian citizens 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 the figures before the pandemic.
Others are not so optimistic.
“I do not think tourism will return very soon.” said Fadi Kattan, a Palestinian chef and hotelier in Bethlehem Old Town. The pandemic forced him to close his Syrian hostel Hosh in March 2020, and over the months he had to let his staff leave.
He said it was neither financially nor practically possible to reopen before Christmas, especially in light of a new wave of coronavirus infections sweeping Europe. He said it would take years to recover from the pandemic “Complex impact over two years” on the economy of Bethlehem – from hotels and restaurants to farmers, food vendors and dry cleaners who depended on their businesses.
“To reopen in security, we need to see that there is a long-term perspective.” he said.
On a final day in the Church of the Nativity, the crown jewel of Bethlehem, a solitary group of Italian tourists entered the 6th-century basilica that in the years before COVID-19 would have a line extending from the door. City officials had begun placing Christmas lights behind them in Manger Square.
The church has undergone a multimillion-dollar change since 2013, organized by a Palestinian presidential committee. It has restored the mosaics with gold tiles and marble floors to their former glory and has made major structural repairs to the UNESCO heritage site, one of the oldest churches in so-called Christianity.
Additional work remains to be done, said Mazen Karam, director of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, the group that heads some of the church restorations. The company has already cost $ 17 million, but Karam said an additional $ 2 million is needed to renovate the church flag stones and install firefighting and microclimate systems.
A special project by the Greek Orthodox Church to renovate the once-soaked iconostasis – a late 18th-century wooden screen separating the sanctuary from the building’s nave – was delayed by the coronavirus outbreak but is now nearing completion. before Christmas, after three years of hard work.
“It’s a big challenge,” he said. said Saki Pappadopoulos, a wood carver with Artis, a Greek restoration company leading the project.
But Father Issa Thaljieh, a Greek Orthodox priest in the Eastern Church, remains optimistic ahead of the holiday season.
“Thank God, a few days later we can see more groups coming to Bethlehem – not staying in Bethlehem, just maybe for a visit – but that’s a good sign.” he said, standing on the marble altar or platform erected of the recently refined church. “Bethlehem without tourists, without people coming to Bethlehem, is nothing.”
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