Bethlehem booming with Christmas tourists after two-year pandemic lull

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Thousands of tourists have returned to the Holy Land for the holidays after the pandemic caused two years of slow business.

Hotels in Bethlehem are fully booked and city streets are swamped with group tours as travelers flock to the traditional birthplace of Jesus ahead of Christmas.

Elias Arja, the head of the Bethlehem hotel association, told the Associated Press tourists are eager to visit the city's religious sites again after years of lockdowns and travel restrictions. Arja added he thinks the boost will continue into the new year.

"We expect that 2023 will be booming and business will be excellent because the whole world, and Christian religious tourists especially, they all want to return to the Holy Land," he said.

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People take pictures of the Christmas tree and nativity scene in Manger Square, outside to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, ahead of Christmas, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. 

The AP reported dozens of groups from "virtually every continent" posed for pictures in front of the Church of the Nativity, which is built on the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born.

A giant Christmas tree also shined bright in the nearby Manger Square as tourists packed into the shops to buy olive wood crosses and more souvenirs.

Tourism in Bethlehem, which is located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank a few miles southeast of Jerusalem, is normally surging around the holidays as thousands of people from all over the world come to the city to celebrate Christmas, but those numbers heavily declined during the pandemic. 

"The city became a city of ghosts," Saliba Nissan told the AP while standing next to a 4-foot wide manger scene inside the Bethlehem New Store, the olive wood factory he co-owns with his brother. The shop was filled with Americans on a bus tour.

Though tourism has not fully recovered, this year's increase has been a welcome improvement and an encouraging sign to business owners.

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Tourists take pictures with the Christmas tree in Manger Square, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, ahead of Christmas, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

The Israeli Tourism Ministry is reportedly expecting around 120,000 Christian tourists during the week of Christmas, which is about 30,000 off from the all-time high of 150,000 visitors in 2019.

Keeping with plans from previous years, the ministry will offer special shuttle buses between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, so visitors can easily travel back and forth.

"God willing, we will go back this year to where things were before the coronavirus, and be even better," Mayor of Bethlehem Hanna Hanania said.

Hanania said around 15,000 people attended the recent lighting of Bethlehem’s Christmas tree, and that international delegations, artists and singers are all expected to participate in celebrations this year.

"Recovery has begun significantly," he said while acknowledging that the recent violence, and Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank, always influence tourism in some way.

Israel captured the West Bank during the 1967 Mideast war. The internationally recognized Palestinian Authority has limited autonomy in parts of the territory, including Bethlehem.

An Ethiopian woman and her child visit the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.  (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

The Christmas season comes at the end of a bloody year in the Holy Land as around 150 Palestinians and 31 Israelis died fighting in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, according to official figures. Those numbers make 2022 the deadliest year since 2006.

Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were militants, but stone-throwing youths and some people not involved in the violence have also been killed, according to the AP.

The fighting, mostly taking place in the northern West Bank, reached the Bethlehem area earlier in December when the Israeli army killed a teenager in the nearby Deheishe refugee camp. Palestinians held a one-day strike across Bethlehem to protest the killing.

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Despite the violence, residents seem determined to keep the Christmas cheer.

Bassem Giacaman, the third-generation owner of the Blessing Gift Shop, founded in 1925 by his grandfather, told the AP the pandemic was far more devastating to his business than violence and political tensions.

"The political [situation] does affect, but nothing major," Giacaman said. "We’ve had it for 60-70 years, and it goes on for a month, then it stops, and tourists come back again."

A Palestinian craftsman carves a figurine of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, at the beginning of the Christmas season, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.  (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

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Covered in sawdust from carving olive-wood figurines, jewelry and religious symbols, Giacaman said it will take him years to recover from the pandemic losses.

He once had 10 people working for him, but now employs half that number, sometimes less, depending on demand.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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