Manger Square merchant: ‘Thank God, this year has been great overall. Business is excellent’
The city where most Christians believe Jesus was born is having its best Christmas season in some 20 years.
Standing in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, surrounded by tourists, Palestinian Authority Tourism Minister Rula Maayah told The Media Line that 2019 has been a good year, with tourism in the Palestinian Territories rising by 15.4% over 2018.
“This year we had 3.5 million tourists, the largest number since we started counting visitors to Palestine,” Maayah said. “Among them, 2.7 million stayed in Palestinian hotels. This is important to us.”
The local economy depends heavily on the money spent by visitors.
Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman told The Media Line that to accommodate the spike in visitors and resulting high demand for rooms, additional hotels were being built, and some existing hotels were expanding.
“Despite the Israeli occupation, we have managed to increase the number of tourists this year. The city has added five new hotels, bringing the total number in the city to 15,” he said.
Bethlehem has seen three years of peace and quiet, Salman says, something that has contributed directly to the economic boom.
“No doubt, political and security stability affects tourism,” he said. “We hope this continues.”
According to Salman, the increase in the number of visitors also led to a decision to extend the opening hours of the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where, according to believers, Jesus was born.
The Palestinian Authority takes the preparation and organization of major events, such as Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, quite seriously, as these events can have a major impact not only on the economy, but also on the PA’s political standing in the international community.
“The Palestinian leadership is working day and night to ensure the safety of all of its guests,” Maayah told The Media Line. “We want to show the world that we can manage our own affairs.”
Fear of violence may have kept tens of thousands of Christian visitors away in the past. But not this year. Topping the list of visitors nowadays are Russians, Italians, Poles, Romanians and Americans.
Roger Hogeland, from Louisville, Kentucky, has been coming to Bethlehem for the past five years, bringing with him choir groups of 40 people.
“We bring a choir here each year,” he told The Media Line. “We haven’t felt any security issues in Bethlehem. No problem.”
The city was dressed for Christmas. Christmas tress stood on every corner of the main streets, colorful lights hanging from their branches. Christmas music filled the cold air, and Santas rang their bells, attracting young and old alike for selfies.
Street vendors and Manger Square merchants did brisk business. Store owner Nabil Jaqaman told The Media Line that after years of losing money, it was nice to be in the black.
“Thank God, this year has been great overall. Business is excellent,” he said. “There are many tourists, and business in October and November this year was also up.”
Palestinian scouts make their traditional march into Bethlehem’s Manger Square on December 24. (Noor Khatib)
But even with all the good news, there are still skeptics.
Mustafa Barghuthi, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party, says a lot still needs to change.
“Christmas means hope and joy,” he explained. “But it also means that Palestinians are steadfast. [They are] determined to have freedom and take down this system of apartheid that is preventing Palestinian Christians from Gaza from coming to Bethlehem.”
This year, Israel issued few permits for Palestinian Christians in the coastal enclave to come to the city. Fewer than 200 made it in time for the celebrations.
Only 14 of 80 members of a scout group could come. Maged Tarazi, head of the group, told The Media Line that those left behind were sorely disappointed.
“This is the city of our Lord Jesus Christ, peace be upon him,” Tarazi told The Media Line.
“We say to the Israeli occupation [authorities]: Despite the blockade and the difficulties it places on us, we are steadfast and will practice our religious and social rituals as Muslims and Christians in the land of Christ, peace be upon him,” he stated.
One of the scouts, 15-year-old Christina, couldn’t hide her excitement at being in the city for Christmas.
“[It is a] very sweet feeling,” she told The Media Line, “but I would have liked it more if the rest of our group had made it here, of course.”
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