Christmas Won’t Boost Bethlehem’s Ailing Finances
Tourism freeze has cost city hundreds of millions of dollars since pandemic arrived in March
Bethlehem has suffered unprecedented losses during this Christmas season, as 90% of the holy city’s economy depends on tourism, which has been nonexistent since March.
The Church of the Nativity, containing the grotto believed to be the birthplace of Christ, stands empty, something never before seen this time of the year, when the city is usually chockfull of people celebrating Christmas and the end of the year.
Mayor Anton Salman told The Media Line that Bethlehem’s economy had dropped by 50% since the pandemic began.
“This has affected 67 hotels and more than 300 gift shops, in addition to the restaurants and cafés,” Salman said.
A Christmas market was allowed to open for one day on Sunday, to allow families with homemade crafts to sell their products, he added. “It was a success, but it was not possible to extend it for more than one day.”
Salman explained that Bethlehem during the Christmas season relied on three sources of revenue: First, there is foreign tourism, which normally provides the lion’s share of the local economy, and which has stopped completely as airports and borders are closed.
“Second, there is the Palestinians and Arabs coming from Israel, who can’t come anymore because of the coronavirus. And last, domestic tourism from Palestinian cities that was affected by the pandemic closures,” the mayor said.
He stressed that the entire tourism sector was devastated, and it was not possible to compensate the restaurants, hotels, gift shops and other affected facilities for their losses.
This time of year, the streets of Bethlehem should be filled with tourists from all over the world, visiting religious sites and buying souvenirs from the Holy Land. Today, the shops are closed, the streets are empty.
Daniel Nissan, a local resident and owner of the Bethlehem New Store − Nissan Bros souvenir store, told The Media Line that since March, the store had lost 100% of its income. “There were additional losses related to employees’ salaries and the end of their services,” he added.
Nissan clarified that at first, the company paid half salaries, but later it had to let them go after paying their compensation. “The government didn’t help at all; the PA can hardly help itself,” he said.
When asked about selling online, he said it was not profitable, as the business relied on foreign tourists, and people’s priorities had changed as a result of the coronavirus, and considered souvenirs luxuries.
Around 3 million people visit Bethlehem in a normal year, amid a recent rise in political and solidarity tours, on top of the religious pilgrimage.
Last March, shopkeepers built up their inventories, preparing for the Easter rush. But the Palestinian Authority imposed a lockdown, and no souvenirs were sold.
George Rishmawi, co-founder of Siraj Center, a nonprofit tour operator, told The Media Line tourism was the biggest industry in Palestine, employing between 30,000 and 35,000 workers, including in travel agents, bus companies, restaurants and tour guides, according to the PA Tourism Ministry.
“Since March everything has stopped, and we went from 100% occupancy − as the hotels were fully booked for the months of April and May – to zero. That causes huge losses for the hotels,” Rishmawi said.
Around 500 souvenir factories lost all their income, hurting their workers and their families as well, he added.
Not only did Siraj Center have no business, but all tourism operators had lost money since the pandemic started, where even outgoing tourism has stopped as the country was closed, Rishmawi confirmed.
“At Siraj we had some savings for emergency times, so we managed to retain our employees for three months, but elsewhere that wasn’t the case.”
Dr. Samir Hazboun, the chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told The Media Line the city has lost between $800 million and $950 million since March, as confirmed by the PA Tourism Ministry, “and these are direct losses, but there is more in indirect losses. For example, hotels buy their groceries, fruit, meat and more from local vendors, who lost that business.”
Hazboun added that when there was tourism, these vendors relied on the sales. “Prior to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the unemployment rate was 21%. It has reportedly doubled since then, to 40-42%.”
He said Bethlehem had 72 hotels, about 75 Middle Eastern souvenir shops and 250 olive wood and seashell workshops, in addition to about 40 tourist restaurants with a good seating capacity, as well as about 35 tour guides, around 85 licensed peddlers, and seven photographers at the Church of Nativity for tourists, who were all hurt by the end of foreign tourism.
“For instance, the bus company that’s linked to the Bethlehem municipality used to charge each bus entering the city $75, and we used to have an average of 100 buses a day,” Hazboun said. Moreover, he cited the craft industries’ exports, which normally amounted to tens of millions of dollars.
Hazboun said that Palestinian tourism had received several blows over the years, due to political events and the Israeli occupation, which had demonstrated that the sector was very sensitive to political instability. “What’s new here is the coronavirus pandemic, which created problems.”
He added, “If we suppose that the pandemic will end by the end of 2021, 2022 will be a recovery year, as the tourism sector needs between two and three years to recover. Even so, several tourism facilities will go out of business, due to high expenses and bankruptcy.”
Hazboun suggested that since the PA is unable to provide compensation for the tourist sector operators’ losses, it might consider refunding tax payments and exemptions from license fees or property tax, in order to alleviate the economic downturn.
“I believe that 20% to 30% of these [tourism] businesses won’t survive,” he said.