Bethlehem was hoping to make up for some coronavirus losses this Christmas. Then came Omicron
BETHLEHEM, West Bank – For the second year running, the West Bank city of Bethlehem, which usually serves as a magnet for Christians from around the world, is looking to the possibility of a Christmas season with few tourists.
The Mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, looked out over a wide courtyard with a view of the old Church of the Nativity earlier this month.
“Do you see the place? It would normally be full of people by then, ”he said.
The sudden appearance of the Omicron coronavirus variant late last month and the subsequent Israeli ban on foreign tourists dealt a blow to a city heavily dependent on the annual Christmas pilgrimage.
Christians revere Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, and Christmas shopping – whether with Christians on pilgrimage or unbelievers attending the celebrations – had seen a boom before the coronavirus pandemic. Almost 1.5 million visitors came to the city in 2019, which was a record high, according to officials.
But in 2020 the pandemic threw the economically vital holiday season into the freezer area. Revenues plummeted when flights ceased and international travel slowed to a trickle.
“There was no work. Few people came for Christmas, mostly people who already live here, ”said Elias al-Arja, who owns the Bethlehem Hotel, which is a short walk from the Church of the Nativity.
As the holiday season approached this year, tour guides and hotel owners were hoping to regain a foothold as thousands of foreigners booked hotels in the city. The numbers were still well below pre-pandemic levels and it wouldn’t have been enough to signal a recovery – but it would have been better than nothing.
“50 percent of our economy is already at a standstill. Also this year we saw that some hotels could not open because there would not be enough [customers] to cover operating costs, ”said Salman.
The Omicron ban for foreign tourists currently expires on December 13th, but can still be extended.
“Even if the ban is lifted, people will have lost confidence in us. The tourists keep making plans – just to see how things fall apart, ”said Tony Khashram, who owns a tourism agency in East Jerusalem.
Al-Arja said he had little hope of making a profit this Christmas.
“This travel ban has put an end to the little that we have been able to cobble together in reservations over the past few months. Everything we worked for has been destroyed, ”he complained.
International health authorities have raised serious concerns about the Omicron variant. Many countries have tightened restrictions, banning flights from southern Africa and denying entry to people who have been in countries with an estimated high Omicron infection rate.
Israel took the unusual step of banning all foreign travelers just weeks after tentatively reopening its skies to tourists. According to the New York Times, only Japan and Morocco have joined the Jewish state in such a blanket ban.
“The key here is caution and minimal risk until we find out more,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters in late November. “To do this, we have to strictly control the country’s borders. Every day we will learn more and know more. “
Palestinians and Arab Israelis can patronize the holy places in the coming month for the time being. And unlike last year, around 500 Christians from Gaza will be allowed to visit their families on the West Bank holidays.
Hundreds of Palestinians gathered in Old Town Square on Saturday evening to light the city’s Christmas tree.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and Salman set the tree on fire in front of a large crowd when fireworks exploded overhead. In his speech Shtayyeh quoted both from the Old Testament, which Christians venerate as divine scripture, and from the Koran, the holiest scripture in Islam.
But the income from inland tourism has traditionally been relatively low: according to official data from the PA, in 2018 only 11% of the total. The big money is in visitors from abroad, who are likely to be scarce this year.
“Hopefully this year we will see an improvement in the ‘internal tourism’ of Arabs in the north,” said Khashram, adding that increased Arab-Israeli pilgrimages could help offset some of the losses.
The entry ban for foreigners could be lifted before Christmas if the health authorities determine that the new virus strain does not pose a serious threat. But Bethlehem residents say the economic damage has already been done.
“People can’t just travel in the blink of an eye. We plan these things well in advance – and if they are canceled, that’s it, ”said al-Arja.
The Palestinian Authority has granted some tax exemptions to hotels in difficulty. But Ramallah, which is already facing a yawning budget deficit, has not paid any mass subsidies for the tourism industry. In neighboring Israel, authorities spent NIS 300 million ($ 94.5 million) in late August to prop up their own ailing tourism sector.
“Israel is a state and we only have our authority. It cannot support us like that. What she could give, she gave. But it wasn’t enough, ”said al-Arja.
Bethlehem shopkeepers said they saw little reason to believe that things would improve significantly by the end of December.
“It would be better if I just close my shop. At this point, I’ll just burn money paying utility bills, ”said one shopkeeper, Ibrahim, who refused to give his last name.