Christmas in Bethlehem: gold-plated treasures, but few tourists (photos)


BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) – Before Christmas, a towering wooden screen – once blackened with soot by millions of believers – is being restored to its gilded luster in the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where many believe Jesus was born.

However, few visitors are expected to see it during the upcoming Christmas vacation.

Biblical Bethlehem has been fighting since the coronavirus pandemic began almost two years ago. Christmas is usually high season for tourism in Jesus’ traditional birthplace, which is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In the time before the pandemic, thousands of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world celebrated in the Church of the Nativity and the adjacent Manger Square.

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 many as in the record year before the pandemic. Most of the tourists visiting Bethlehem fly to Israel as the West Bank does not have an airport.

Many Bethlehem hotels have closed and shopkeepers have struggled to stay afloat. Aladdin Subuh, a shopkeeper whose shop is right on Manger Square, said he only opens his doors to ventilate the shop.

KEEP FOR HISTORY. A section of the renovated mosaic in the Church of the Nativity in the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, Thursday, November 11, 2021. The city in the West Bank, venerated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, has been fighting for more than a year and a half since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The Palestinian city’s economy is heavily reliant on tourists and pilgrims, and in their absence hotels have closed and shopkeepers struggle to survive. (AP Photo / Nasser Nasser)

“It’s almost Christmas and no one is there. Imagine that, ”he said, looking at the few passers-by, hoping to spot a foreigner looking for a souvenir. “No business for two years. It’s like slowly dying. “

Although the pandemic has tainted the Holy Land’s once thriving tourism industry for Israelis and Palestinians alike, the ramifications for tourism-dependent Bethlehem have been particularly dire. Israel, the main gateway for foreign tourists, had banned most foreign visitors for the past year and a half before reopening this month.

A little over 30,000 tourists entered Israel in the first half of November, compared with 421,000 in November 2019, according to the Israeli Interior Ministry.

The Palestinian local government, which manages autonomous enclaves in the West Bank, has given hoteliers, tour operators and tour guides limited support in the form of tax exemptions and training programs, said Majed Ishaq, marketing director for the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism. He said the ministry had launched a campaign to encourage Palestinian citizens of Israel to visit Bethlehem and other cities in the West Bank during the holiday season. He added that he hoped the number of overseas tourists would be 10-20% of the pre-pandemic numbers.

Others are not that optimistic.

KEEP FOR HISTORY. Tourists visit the Church of the Nativity in the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, Tuesday, November 16, 2021. The city in the West Bank, venerated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, has been fighting since the beginning of the corona pandemic. The Palestinian city’s economy is heavily reliant on tourists and pilgrims, and in their absence hotels have closed and shopkeepers struggle to survive. (AP Photo / Nasser Nasser)

“I don’t think tourism will come back anytime soon,” said Fadi Kattan, a Palestinian chef and hotelier in Bethlehem’s Old City. The pandemic forced him to close his Syrian guest house in Hosh in March 2020 and over the months he had to lay off his staff.

He said it was neither financially nor practically feasible to reopen before Christmas, especially given a new wave of coronavirus infections across Europe. He said it will take years to recover from the “two-year composite impact of the pandemic” on Bethlehem’s economy – from hotels and restaurants to the farmers, grocers and dry cleaners who depend on their businesses.

“In order to reopen in safety, we have to see that there is a long-term perspective,” he said.

One recent day at the Church of the Nativity, the Crown Jewel of Bethlehem, a lone group of Italian tourists entered the basilica from which the sixth city officials began to hang Christmas lights behind them in Manger Square.

The church has undergone a multi-million dollar facelift since 2013, organized by a Palestinian presidential committee. It has restored gold-tiled mosaics and marble floors to their former glory and made major structural repairs to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the oldest churches in Christendom.

KEEP FOR HISTORY. Tourists visit the Church of the Nativity in the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, Tuesday, November 16, 2021. The city in the West Bank, venerated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, has been fighting since the beginning of the corona pandemic. The Palestinian city’s economy is heavily reliant on tourists and pilgrims, and in their absence hotels have closed and shopkeepers struggle to survive. (AP Photo / Nasser Nasser)

There is more work to be done, said Mazen Karam, director of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, the group leading some of the church’s restorations. The company has already cost $ 17 million, but Karam said an additional $ 2 million will be needed to refurbish the church’s flagstones and install fire extinguishing and microclimate systems.

A separate project of the Greek Orthodox Church for the renovation of the once soot-encrusted iconostasis – a wooden wall from the late 18th years of painstaking work.

“It’s a big challenge,” says Saki Pappadopoulos, wood carver at Artis, a Greek restoration company that is leading the project.

But Father Issa Thaljieh, a Greek Orthodox priest in the Church of the Nativity, remains optimistic about the Christmas season.

“Thank God we can see a little more groups coming to Bethlehem every day – not Bethlehem, maybe just for a visit – but it’s a good sign,” he said, standing on the church’s recently renovated marble theme . or raised platform. “Bethlehem without tourists, without people who come to Bethlehem, is nothing.”


From ILAN BEN ZION Associated Press

KEEP FOR HISTORY. Palestinian workers prepare a Christmas tree in Manager Square next to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Tuesday, November 16, 2021. Venerated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, the West Bank city has fought for more than a year and a half since the coronavirus pandemic began. The Palestinian city’s economy is heavily reliant on tourists and pilgrims, and in their absence hotels have closed and shopkeepers struggle to survive. (AP Photo / Nasser Nasser)


Comments are closed.