Have a little fun in Bethlehem while Omicron comes to Christmas tourism

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Just a month ago, Bethlehem gallery owner Rula Dughman was preparing for her busiest time of the year: Christmas.

“In November, everyone was busy cleaning up, preparing for the rebirth of Bethlehem for Christmas. Then came Omicron, ”she sighed, looking across the deserted Manger Street, near the place where, according to tradition, Jesus Christ was born.

Shortly after a new variant of the coronavirus was discovered, Israel, which controls the borders of the occupied West Bank where Bethlehem is located, closed travel abroad to curb its spread.

Within Israel, the economic impact of successive closures on the tourism industry has been mitigated by billions of shekels spent by the government on unemployment benefits and targeted assistance to hotels and tour operators.

But the impoverished Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-government, has had little help to offer hoteliers and business people in Bethlehem.

Without tourists, Bethlehem’s economy dried up, and on its second Christmas under the pandemic, two-colored marchers from local schools did nothing to lift the despondent air on Christmas Eve. “We are talking about a large number of economic institutions that have faced epic failures,” said Anton Salman, mayor of Bethlehem.

The municipality of Bethlehem, where foreign tourists first brought the virus in March 2020, had just over 500 active coronavirus cases on Christmas Eve, out of about 20,000 since the start of the pandemic. Its population is almost 100,000 people. About 250 of its residents died from Covid-19, according to health officials.

Older residents recalled last Christmas under the first and second intifade, or riots, the 1980s and early 2000s as less gloomy than this. At least then, they said, the nearby Byzantine Church of the Nativity was opened.

“We don’t have oil here – all we have is a church, and if the church is open, we make a living,” said Adnan Sobh, 51, a souvenir shop owner who was months late with rent for a shop at Manger Square. “I sold my sheep, sold my goats and had to sell the car just to survive, just to keep living.”

Unlike other West Coast cities, half of Bethlehem’s workforce is tied to Christian tourism, Salman said as he watched the darkened celebrations from his office above Manger Square. Television cameras zoomed in narrowly to avoid the spectacle of the empty square, while marching bands greeted Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, a leading Catholic cleric, on a chilly Christmas Eve afternoon.

Salman counted 67 hotels, 125 souvenir shops and dozens of olive-growing workshops that affect thousands of people. “People can’t repay their loans to the bank – not even us [the municipality] they are facing financial difficulties, ”Salman said.

The municipality of Bethlehem is down $ 10 million, he estimated, and tourism revenue accounts for about half of Bethlehem’s total revenue. The Palestinian Authority deficit has grown to $ 1.36 billion in 2021, the World Bank estimates, as nearly a third of West Bank households have remained below the poverty line.

Eight of Bethlehem’s 10 workers are unemployed, a city official estimates. The total gross domestic product of the occupied Palestinian territories is below 15 billion dollars, international organizations estimate, and the West Bank makes up the vast majority of that.

Amani Juha spent $ 1.5 million renovating an old building into a modern 56-room hotel in Bethlehem. It reopened in November, hoping to bring back the 25 employees it lost. “I have to look for a new shop window, something that has nothing to do with tourism. We had a lot of reservations for 2022, but then it was Omicron, ”she said.

Dughman pointed to closed shops, hotels with lights off and small groups from Israel visiting places that typically attract thousands of visitors.

In her cafe, she said her job was saved by Palestinians of Israeli nationality, some of them Christians, who came to Bethlehem for the holidays after it was difficult for them to fly abroad during the pandemic.

But because she kept her gallery and cafe open at a time of deep impoverishment, she felt guilty. “It was terrible to open an art exhibition when people here are going through something so catastrophic – they have no income, and I tell them to come and enjoy art,” she said.

At the entrance to the sixth-century church, Father Antonius Habib waited for the steps to lead the Patriarch to prayer and advised patience – both with the pandemic and with the Lord. Christians in Bethlehem should take some comfort in returning the city for their private celebrations, instead of sharing them with tens of thousands of foreigners, he said.

And for the rest of the Christians in the world, the message remains the same. “Despite our agony, we must remember that the Lord came to save us,” he said. He then adjusted his mask and joined the socially distant welcoming order for the Patriarch.

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