Following a surge in coronavirus cases in Bethlehem, the head of the city’s health directorate, Dr. Shadi Al-Lahham, called for a cancellation of Christmas ceremonies. He said worshippers should keep their prayer groups to small numbers.
The entire emergency medical system at hospitals in his district, he said, was full, and a rise in the number of seriously ill was expected.
The West Bank is still officially on an emergency footing but enforcement of lockdowns has been lax compared to the first lockdown in the spring, when case numbers were lower.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh recently said the cabinet was monitoring the situation and would make decisions regarding lockdowns or other restrictions as necessary.
Christmas festivities are typically a boost for Bethlehem’s flagging economy and for the Holy Land’s dwindling Christian population, which has shrunk over the decades as people fled conflict and searched for better opportunities abroad.
Still, the celebrations in 2019 capped the most successful year in history for Palestinian tourism, according to Tourism Minister Rula Maayah. This year, however, will be vastly different due to the pandemic.
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Bethlehem – located just outside of Jerusalem – has invested heavily in tourism, building new hotels and attempting to diversify itself by offering culinary and cultural destinations in addition to its traditional holy sites.
Last year, Tourism Minister Rula Maayah estimated that some 15,000 pilgrims stayed overnight in Bethlehem’s fully booked hotels during Christmas. Tourists were also staying in other West Bank towns, such as Ramallah and Jericho, in addition to Jerusalem.
In all, she said the number of foreign tourists visiting the West Bank in 2019 was estimated at 3.5 million people.