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Covid-19: Lack of pilgrims leaves Bethlehem's tourism industry in tatters

High hopes for the return of tourism this Christmas have been dashed with Israel’s tightening of border restrictions
Visitors inside the almost deserted Church of the Nativity (MEE/Shatha Hammad)
By Shatha Hammad in Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine

Christmas in Bethlehem is unrecognisably solemn this year. 

Many storefronts are closed, tourists are nowhere to be seen, and the Nativity Church, normally bustling with pilgrims this time of year, is barren. 

The tourist-centered economy of Bethlehem was one of those hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic now entering its third year. The pandemic shows little sign of abating, as airports shut down and deal yet another heavy blow to a city that had hoped that this holiday season would be different.

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One of Bethlehem’s oldest olive wood shops, opened in 1925, is run by its owner Nabil Giacaman, 35, a third-generation woodworker in the family business. 

Usually bustling with tourists at this time of year, the shop is now empty and has been ever since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We are being ruined,” Giacaman tells Middle East Eye. “True, the Intifadas [uprisings] that Palestine has experienced over the decades also affected our business, but the effects of those events were felt for limited periods of time. 

"The virus has had a much bigger impact on us, especially since we have no idea whether there’s an end in sight.”

Collapsed economy

Giacaman, like all residents of Bethlehem, had initially hoped that the spread of the virus would now be contained and airports would have reopened for tourism, which they heavily rely upon for the invigoration of the local economy. 

Their hopes were quickly dashed, however. “There’s no point in opening the shop anymore,” said Giacaman. 

“All day the shop remains empty, no patrons or tourists enter. Many days come and go without us selling a single thing.”

The Giacaman family has relied on its woodworking shop for 18 years, up until the end of 2019. 

Today, no one is in the shop other than Giacaman and five workers, and the shop is almost $250,000 in debt, which puts the continued work of the shop in jeopardy. 

“The governments of the world compensate their citizens,” says Giacaman, remarking on the policies of the Palestinian Authority (PA) with disdain. 

“But here, we, and we alone, are harassed with taxes and cheques, and are expected to pay all regular payments as if the situation were normal.”

No shoppers

At another souvenir shop near the Nativity Church, Yvene Qanawati, 51, sits and scrolls through the news on her iPad. 

Her shop’s lights are turned off today; no tourist or visitor has entered the place all day, a shop that her family opened in the time of Ottoman rule, and was widely considered to be one of the town's most important souvenir shops.

 Yvene Qanawati says the prospect of selling her souvenirs to tourists has now become a pipedream (MEE/Shatha Hammad)
Yvene Qanawati says the prospect of selling her souvenirs to tourists has now become a pipedream (MEE/Shatha Hammad)

“The virus’s spread has set us back several years,” Qanawati told MEE. “The shop no longer has any visitors... I’ve lost thousands of dollars worth of merchandise.” 

Qanawati clarifies that she opened the shop today to preserve whatever remained of the souvenirs, even though the prospect of selling them to tourists has now become a pipedream.

Like Giacaman, she also expresses her disdain for the PA’s neglect.

“We’ve been hit very hard due to the virus," she said.

"Our shops have been ruined, and we’re very worse off because of it, and all of this without any aid, compensation, or even attention from the government... we’re going to lose everything if things remain this way.”

Empty restaurant

Things haven’t been much better for Afteem, one of Bethlehem’s oldest hummus and falafel restaurants, which lies at the centre of the Nativity Church Square and has been trading since 1948.

Saliba Salameh, the restaurant’s owner, stands in front of a falafel deep-fryer, getting it ready ahead of the expected customers, all of whom are Bethlehem residents. 

But inside the restaurant, it is almost completely empty. 

Afteem restaurant owner Saliba Salameh, right, said he had high hopes for the return of tourism to Bethlehem this year, but those hopes had been dashed (MEE/Shatha Hammad)
Afteem restaurant owner Saliba Salameh, right, said he had high hopes for the return of tourism to Bethlehem this year, but those hopes had been dashed (MEE/Shatha Hammad)

Salameh, who has worked there for 40 years, told MEE that there have been few tourists at the restaurant since the beginning of the pandemic. 

"We were really hard-hit, and our business has decreased by about 70 percent,” he says.

He adds that he had high hopes for the return of tourism to Bethlehem this year, but those hopes were dashed by Israel’s tightening of border restrictions after the rise of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Pandemic effects exacerbated by Israeli policies

In October and November, Bethlehem had started seeing some signs of a reinvigoration of tourism in the pilgrimage season, following Israel’s reopening of borders to tourists on 1 November. 

Tourist groups started to stream into the town, but on 28 November, Israel decided to reinstate its travel ban after a resurgence of Covid-19 and documented cases of Omicron in Israel. 

This put an immediate halt to tourism in Bethlehem and the expected influx of pilgrims.

Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman told MEE: “Bethlehem is still in the throes of the crisis that started in March 2020 due to the pandemic, especially since the town’s economy is dependent on tourism".

In light of the city’s economic misfortunes, the municipality attempted to kick-start the holiday season through the opening of a Christmas market, but it remained limited in scope and relied solely on internal tourism, only leading to moderate improvements.

“The economic downturn that accompanied the halt in tourism has reached 50 percent,” said Salman. 

“And its effects can be more keenly felt during the supposed peak season of economic activity during Christmas.” 

He references the direct hit to the restaurant and souvenir shops, to the hotels and woodworking shops, and to domestic workers, all of which account for around 8,000 jobs, which has led to an industry loss of over $200 million.

Salman says the effects of the pandemic have been exacerbated by the Israeli occupation, particularly its policies against Palestinians, its control over borders, and the way it prevents the entry of tourists. 

“If we were in a normal situation, we would have multiplied our annual numbers of visitors to Bethlehem,” he said.

Hotels devastated

This is especially true after the Israeli occupation imposed new restrictions that worsened the effects of the pandemic on the town. 

For instance, even though tourists were allowed into Israel in November, they were initially prevented from reaching Bethlehem and were forced to remain in Israel. 

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After prolonged pressure, they were eventually let into the town, but without being allowed to stay overnight, which was a blow to hotels there.

Elias al-Arja, head of the Arab Hotel Association, told MEE that the constant closures of the border and the prevention of pilgrims and tourists from reaching Bethlehem has left the 72 Palestinian hotels in the town devastated and their 4,500 rooms empty.

Arja adds that Bethlehem used to house 8,000 guests in its hotels per day before the spread of the virus, and was a source of income for about 2,800 workers. 

Most of them have lost their jobs, and the number of hotel workers in Bethlehem is now about 500, he said.

Many of the hotels are now threatened with closure, with Arja cautioning that any return of the hotels to work will not be easy due to the huge losses they have incurred since March 2020.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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