During the Christmas season, Bethlehem’s Manger Square is normally packed with pilgrims and tourists. Thousands of people traditionally flock to the biblical town, where Christians believe Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago.
But for the second year in a row, tough travel restrictions are in place and Manger Square is empty of tourists, putting a damper on this year’s holiday spirit.
“This Christmas again it’s not the same Christmas,” Balqees Quomsieh, sales manager at Three Arches 2 souvenir shop, told The Media Line.
Father Ibrahim Faltas, adviser to the Custody of the Holy Land, says the situation in the holy town is extremely difficult.
“Before corona, you would be looking at long lines of pilgrims and tourists to enter the church. But as you can see, no one is here. The church is empty a week before Christmas,” he said, referring to the Church of the Nativity, said to be built on the site of Jesus’ birthplace.
In late November, Israel closed its airport to foreign visitors and imposed tough restrictions in order to fight the battle against COVID-19 and its new omicron variant.
Quomsieh says things had been looking up until then.
“This year we were expecting to have some tourists for Christmas, we prepared the shop,” he said.
But that didn’t last long.
“We opened in early November, we had maybe two groups after one year and nine months. And then, on the 1st of December, they closed again,” he said.
In Bethlehem, Christmas isn’t just a holiday, it’s a livelihood. Businesses in the tourism sector have been looking forward to this year’s celebrations, which the Palestinian Authority says will go ahead as planned.
Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman says that he will do everything to keep Christmas festivities going this season.
“We have the will that we are going to celebrate Christmas in a very optimistic way this year … different from last year,” he said.
Tony Hosh of Bethlehem owns a travel agency and an olive wood factory manufacturing Christmas souvenirs and gifts, exporting most of his products and merchandise to Europe and the United States.
He told The Media Line that, for a second year in a row, his business has been hit hard by the closure resulting from the pandemic.
“I had to close my travel agency completely,” he said.
He also had to close his factory for six months at the outset of the pandemic, forcing him to lay off many of his employees, and causing major losses for his business.
“In the past 50 years, many events have passed us by, from the Gulf wars, the first and second intifadas, we have not experienced circumstances like the ones that we experienced during the corona pandemic. The situation is very bad,” Hosh said.
But despite all that, Hosh is still enthusiastic about the future, and he says he has faith that things will turn around.
“God willing, we will raise the white flag and we will remain standing and persevering, working, and standing with our workers. Things will go back to how they were before. I am optimistic,” he said.