There’s once again no room at the inn in Bethlehem as the Palestinian city gears up for its first Christmas season after two years of pandemic restrictions.
During the week of Christmas this year, 120,000 tourists and pilgrims from all over the world are expected to visit the occupied West Bank town, home to the Byzantine Church of the Nativity, which stands on the spot where it is believed Jesus was born. The predicted numbers for 2022 are almost on a par with 2019, when Bethlehem saw an all-time high of 150,000 visitors in the same time period, and 3 million visitors overall.
On a mild, sunny afternoon in mid-December, hundreds of local and international tourists stopped to look at a nativity scene and posed for selfies in front of the huge Christmas tree in Manger Square, adjacent to the church. As the daylight began to fade, festive lights glowed all over the city centre, and a band started up at a nearby restaurant.
Historically one of the most important centres of Christianity, today the majority of Bethlehem’s population is Muslim but the town is still home to a thriving Christian community and many Christian orders.
“I’m Muslim but I love Christmas. I’ve been coming to Bethlehem every year since I was a kid,” said street seller Majed Hamdan, 21, who was hawking Santa hats and face masks in the square.
“People are definitely back this year. The atmosphere is very different.”
Tourism is a vital sector of the Palestinian economy, accounting for about 15% of the Palestinian Authority’s gross domestic product. Since the territories do not have an airport, most international visitors enter through Israel, crossing checkpoints in Israel’s West Bank wall that keeps the two holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem separate from one another despite the fact they’re only 6 miles (10km) apart.
Covid-19 decimated Bethlehem’s tourism industry: the hotels, restaurants, olive woodworking and souvenir shops lost $200m (£164m) during two years’ worth of closures, the local municipality has estimated. Unlike other governments, the weak Palestinian Authority did not offer financial help for Palestinian business owners or the city’s 8,000 workers, making the pandemic a gruelling challenge.
But this year, Bethlehem’s 5,000 hotel rooms are once again fully booked. Some visitors to Israel and the Palestinian territories choose to stay in the West Bank city for the duration of their trip, as it is much cheaper than Jerusalem.
“Covid was very tough. We are a family business, we have been here for 90 years. Business goes up and down with the political situation but we never had anything like the pandemic,” said Nabil Giacaman, a third-generation woodworker and owner of the Il Bambino arts and sculpture shop.
“I am still worried because there’s inflation and money problems everywhere so even if tourists are coming they don’t have as much to spend. Still … now is much better than before.”
While the pandemic may have eased, 2022 has still been difficult here: this year has been the bloodiest in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem and the West Bank in 17 years, with about 150 Palestinians and 30 Israelis killed. Fighting has largely been contained to the north of the occupied territory, but the Israeli army killed a teenager in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem earlier this month, leading to a daylong strike across the city in protest.
But amid the golden mosaics, candles and incense in Emperor Justinian’s 1,500-year-old Church of the Nativity, no visitors seemed worried about the possibility of violence. Tour guides working in several different languages patiently shepherded hundreds of foreigners through the church’s tiny entrance, explaining the many layers of religion and history inside.
“I’ve always wanted to come pray under the star where Jesus was born and now I finally have the chance to,” said Dorothy Wise, a 70-year-old from the US on a tour with her church group. “We actually planned this a while back so it’s great to finally be here.”
Fabio Vecchio, 36, was wandering around Bethlehem with a small group of friends from Milan. “I’m not really religious but we are enjoying our visit. It feels special to be here during the Christmas season,” he said.
Bethlehem locals, too, are determined that this year’s celebrations should go ahead: the busy December programme includes hosting international delegations and performances from artists and singers before the festivities culminate with midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
“This city is nothing without pilgrims and of course Christmas is the best time of the year here,” said William Ghattas, 54, a friar at the church drinking coffee outside in the sunshine. “It is wonderful to welcome people back again.”