Bethlehem was hoping to recover some coronavirus losses this Christmas. Then came Omicron
BETHLEHEM, West Bank – For the second year in a row, the West Bank city of Bethlehem, which normally attracts Christians from all over the world, is considering the possibility of a Christmas season with barely any tourists.
As he gazed at a wide courtyard facing the ancient Church of the Nativity earlier this month, Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman was disheartened.
“Do you see the square? Normally, at this stage, it would already be full of people, ”he said.
The sudden onset of the Omicron variant coronavirus late last month, and the subsequent Israeli ban on foreign tourists, dealt a heavy blow to a city heavily dependent on the annual Christmas pilgrimage.
Christians revere Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, and vacation business – whether with Christians on pilgrimage or non-believers participating in the festivities – was in full swing before the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, nearly 1.5 million visitors came to the city, a record according to the authorities.
But in 2020, the pandemic plunged the economically vital holiday season into a deep freeze. Income collapsed as flights were stranded and international travel collapsed.
“There was no work. Only a few people came for Christmas, most of the people already living here, ”said Elias al-Arja, owner of Hotel Bethlehem, 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 their balance, as thousands of foreigners booked hotels in the city. The 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 hiatus. Even this year we saw that some hotels could not open, because there would not be enough [customers] to cover running costs, ”Salman said.
Omicron’s ban on foreign tourists is currently set to expire on December 13, but could be further extended.
“Even though the ban is lifted, people have lost confidence in us. Time and time again, tourists plan – only to see things fall apart, ”said Tony Khashram, owner of a tourism agency in East Jerusalem.
Al-Arja said he had little hope of making a profit on Christmas.
“This travel ban has put an end to what little we had been able to tinker with in terms of reservations over the past few months. Everything we were working for was destroyed, ”he lamented.
International health officials have expressed serious concerns about the Omicron variant. Many countries have tightened restrictions, banning flights from southern Africa and denying entry to those who had stayed in countries where the Omicron infection rate is believed to be high.
Israel has taken the unusual step of banning all foreign travelers, just weeks after it tentatively reopened its skies to tourists. Only Japan and Morocco joined the Jewish state in such a blanket ban, according to the New York Times.
“The key here is caution and minimal risk until we know more,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters in late November. “To this end, we must maintain tight control over the country’s borders. Every day we will learn more and know more.
Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, for now, may still visit holy places in the coming month. And unlike last year, some 500 Christians in Gaza will be granted permits to visit their families in the West Bank for the holidays.
On Saturday evening, hundreds of Palestinians gathered in the Old Town Square to light the town’s Christmas tree.
PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and Salman lit the tree in front of a large crowd as fireworks erupted above their heads. In his speech, Shtayyeh cited both the Old Testament, which Christians worship as divine writing, and the Quran, the holiest script in Islam.
But income from domestic tourism has traditionally been relatively low: just 11% of the total in 2018, according to official PA figures. The big bucks are foreign visitors, who may be scarce this year.
“I hope this year we will see an improvement in Arab ‘internal tourism’ in the north,” Khashram said, adding that the increase in Arab Israeli pilgrimages could help offset some of the losses.
The ban on foreigners entering the country could still be lifted before Christmas, if health officials determine that the new virus strain is not a serious threat. But residents of Bethlehem say the economic damage has already been done.
“People cannot travel in the blink of an eye. We plan these things well in advance – and once they’re canceled, that’s it, ”al-Arja said.
The Palestinian Authority has granted tax exemptions to struggling hotels. But Ramallah, which already faces a yawning budget deficit, has not handed out massive subsidies for the tourism industry. In neighboring Israel, authorities disbursed 300 million shekels ($ 94.5 million) at the end of August to support its own ailing tourism sector.
“Israel is a state, and we only have our Authority. He can’t support us that way. What he could give, he gave. But it was not enough, ”al-Arja said.
Bethlehem traders said they saw little reason to believe things would improve significantly by the end of December.
“It would be better if I just closed my shop. At this point, I’m just going to spend the money paying electricity bills, ”said store owner Ibrahim, who declined to be identified by his last name.