In the days leading up to Christmas, the birthplace of Jesus would usually be mobbed by tourists. But save for three Muslim women, there are no visitors on the main floor of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity on this weekday morning.
Dressed in long robes, their heads covered in hijabs, the women snap photos of one another posing near the altar. The gilded iconostasis, recently restored to its former glory, sparkles behind them.
In a sense, Bethlehem’s loss is their gain. Had the COVID pandemic not obliterated tourism to this top Holy Land destination, these women might never have had this sixth-century church, glistening after a multimillion-dollar renovation, all to themselves.
“We get more Muslim visitors these days than Christians,” a guard on the premises remarks wryly. “They come from Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus, all over the region, to see how beautiful the church looks now that the restoration work is almost completed.”
“But, from overseas,” he adds, “there is hardly anybody.”
In the pre-pandemic days, at this time of year the stairs leading down to the church grotto would be jam-packed with pilgrims awaiting a glimpse of the site where the Virgin Mary, according to tradition, delivered Jesus. But the stairs are empty this morning.
Sitting on a ledge in the basement are two Italians, a priest and a nun, dressed in plain clothes, in quiet conversation. They are soon joined by a nun in full habit, who kneels on the marble floor, crosses herself and kisses the silver star believed to mark the exact spot where Jesus was born. With none of the usual crowds to nudge her on, she has time to pause and snap a few photos with her cellphone.
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For the second year in a row, COVID-19 has dealt a devastating blow to Christmas celebrations in the town where it all began. Until recently, there was still hope that things might turn out differently this year. Indeed, on November 1, for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic, Israel opened its borders to tourists, provided they were vaccinated or recovered. But just three week later, when the new omicron variant was discovered in South Africa, it sealed them shut again.
Located in the West Bank, about 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem falls mostly under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. But given that the West Bank does not have its own airport, overseas tourists traveling to the biblical town must enter through Ben Gurion Airport, meaning that Israeli restrictions on tourism affect the West Bank as well.
Had Israel’s borders reopened a few days before Christmas, in accordance with the original plan, it could have salvaged some business for local hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. But the tourist entry ban has been extended until December 29 and most likely beyond that, given the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
It might not have been as painful a blow, many business owners say, had 2019 not been a record year for Holy Land tourism, creating the illusion that the good times would only get better. Indeed, tourism is the main driver of the local economy, responsible for a large share of employment in Bethlehem.
According to Palestinian tourism officials, the busiest day ever recorded at the Church of the Nativity was the last Saturday of November 2019. On that one day, 12,000 visitors, mainly foreigners, toured the UNESCO Heritage Site. To emphasize how badly the pandemic has devastated this town, officials note that in recent weeks there have been 150 visitors a day at the church, on average. Most of them are locals.
Fadi Zougabi, a 39-year-old father of two, used to work as a tour guide and hospitality host for Christian pilgrim groups arriving in Bethlehem. His last day of work, he says, was March 5, 2020. “My family and I have been living off our savings since then,” says Zougabi, a member of a local evangelical church.
“Before the pandemic hit, this town was so flooded with tourists that you could not find a vacant hotel room,” he relays over coffee in Manger Square, the tourist hub adjacent to the Church of Nativity. “Not only were the hotels full, but so were the restaurants and souvenir shops, which means that even those tourists who weren’t spending the night in Bethlehem were helping the local economy.”
When Israel announced that, starting in early November, it would grant entry to tourists for the first time in 20 months, Zougabi says he thought was “starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
But with the borders closed yet again, all his hopes have been dashed. “All I can say is that it will be a very silent night this Christmas,” he says. “I can only hope that my prayers will be answered and life will get back to normal.”
Most of the souvenir shops and restaurants surrounding Manger Square are still closed by late morning. A proprietor of one of the few shops that is open explains that his fellow storekeepers don’t bother coming to work until much later in the day since there are no tourists around anyway. Even then, he notes, there is not much to do but dust the shelves.
A few local families pause to admire the large Christmas tree at the edge of the square. Before omicron fears prompted the latest border closure, several choirs from Europe had been scheduled to perform at this spot on Christmas Eve in a much-anticipated holiday event. It is one more cancellation to add to the long list.
‘Totally out of our control’
The Nissan Brothers souvenir shop, a short drive from Manger Square, is something of an institution in Bethlehem. The huge shop, festively decorated for Christmas, specializes in religious articles made of olive wood, for which Bethlehem is famous. In pre-pandemic times, a stop here was considered mandatory on every pilgrimage tour.
The shop is open this afternoon, but aside from Chris Nissan, who manages the nearly half-century-old family business, it is completely empty.
Nissan had been traveling around the United States this fall on a long overdue vacation when Israel announced it would be opening its borders. “I cut my trip short, figuring there would be a flood of tourists coming to Bethlehem and rushed back to get ready for them,” he says.
No sooner had he returned home than the borders were closed yet again. “It is so disappointing,” he laments.
Several weeks ago, Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, sparked outrage when he urged Israelis working in tourism to start looking for other jobs. His remarks did not go down well in this Palestinian town either. “The gall,” says Nissan. “They should send him back to Russia.”
The Bethlehem Hotel, located about a block away, opened 25 years ago. With 220 rooms, it is one of the largest hotels in town. Sitting alone in the dimly-lit lobby, dressed in a suit and tie, is Elias Arja, the despondent owner. In 2019, the year before the pandemic hit, he was fully booked almost every night, he relays. Right now, only about half a dozen rooms in this massive hotel are occupied.
“Our business came almost exclusively from Christian pilgrim groups, so when they stopped coming we had no business,” says Arja. ”If we want to stay afloat, we realize we’re going to have to change direction and focus on the local market.”
The Saint Joseph Hotel is much newer, having opened in 2019. The 120-room upscale hotel enjoyed nearly full occupancy for the short 14-month period that it operated, according to Nabil Rumman, the general manager. “That was the best year ever for tourism in the Holy Land, so we were lucky,” he notes. Aside from a brief period of six days between the end of November and early December, the hotel, which caters mainly to American and Italian pilgrims, has been closed since March 2020.
Going into the hotel business, Rumman says, he had his fair share of concerns, but in retrospect, he realizes he was obsessing over the wrong things.
“We were always afraid about the political situation in the region, not the health situation,” he says. “It turns out the health situation is a much bigger problem because it just goes on and on with no end in sight. By contrast, with the conflict, you get waves of violence, but they usually don’t last more than a month or two.”
Aladin Subeh, who owns a Palestinian craft shop off of Manger Square, can’t remember ever experiencing such tough times since he opened his business 15 years ago. “I’m completely broke,” he says.
Mistakenly assuming that tourism would recover by Christmas, Subeh relays, he went on a major buying spree several months ago, filling the shelves of his shop with olivewood products from nearby Beit Sahur, ceramic and glass products from Hebron and handmade kilim rugs from Bethlehem. “I borrowed money to finance these purchases thinking I’d be able to repay the loans once the tourists returned and business was back to normal,” he says. “But that’s not going to happen. It’s so unfair.”
When asked what’s worse for businesses in Bethlehem – the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its ups and downs, or the global pandemic – Subeh doesn’t need to pause before responding.
“The pandemic, obviously,” he says. “If we really wanted to, we humans have the ability to bring the conflict to an end. You can’t say the same about the pandemic. That is totally out of our control.”