There is no tourism in Bethlehem despite its restored treasures

BELÉN, West Bank (AP) – With Christmas just over a month to go, restorers are restoring its golden glory to a massive wooden partition – once blackened by the smoke generated by millions of parishioners’ candles – in the Basilica. of the Nativity, built on the site where many believe that Jesus was born. However, very few visitors are expected in the upcoming Christmas season.

The Biblical Nativity Scene has been through many troubles since the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago. Normally, Christmas is a peak season for tourism in the city, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Before the pandemic, thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world visited the Basilica and the adjacent Manger Square.

Israel reopened its borders to vaccinated tourists this month, but relatively few are expected to travel to Bethlehem for the Christmas season and nowhere near the record for the year that preceded the pandemic. Most tourists visiting Bethlehem fly to Israel, as the West Bank has no airport.

Many of the hotels in Bethlehem have closed their doors and the shop owners have suffered to survive. Aladdin Subuh, whose store is next to Manger Square, said it only opens its doors to air the premises.

“It is almost Christmas and there is no one. Imagine that, ”he said, looking at the few passersby hoping to see a foreigner looking for a souvenir. “For two years, no business. It is like dying slowly ”.

While the pandemic has battered the once thriving tourism branch of the Holy Land for Israelis and Palestinians alike, for a city that is heavily reliant on tourism the impact has been especially severe. Israel, the main gateway for foreign tourists, has barred most foreign visitors for the past year and a half, before reopening this month.

Just 30,000 tourists entered Israel in the first half of November, compared with 421,000 in November 2019, according to the Interior Ministry.

The Palestinian self-government, which administers the autonomous enclaves in the West Bank, has provided only limited support, in the form of tax breaks and training programs for hoteliers, tour operators and guides, reported Majed Ishaq, director of marketing at the Ministry of Education. Palestinian tourism. He said the ministry was going to launch a campaign to encourage Palestinian citizens of Israel to visit Bethlehem and other sites in the West Bank during the Christmas season. He added that he expects the number of foreign tourists to be between 10% and 20% of the pre-pandemic figures.

Others are not so optimistic.

“I don’t think tourism is going to come back anytime soon,” said Fadi Kattan, a Palestinian chef and hotelier in the Old City of Bethlehem. The pandemic forced him to close his Hosh Syrian guesthouse in March 2020 and he had to lay off his employees.

He said it was neither financially nor practically feasible to reopen before Christmas, especially in light of a new wave of coronavirus infections in Europe. He added that it will take years for Bethlehem’s economy to recover from the “combined impact of two years” of the pandemic, from hotels and restaurants to farmers, shop owners and laundries who relied on their businesses.

“To reopen safely we have to see that there are long-term prospects,” he said.

On a recent day at the Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem’s most precious pearl, a lonely group of Italian tourists entered the 6th-century church that in the years before COVID-19 would have had a long line in front of the door. Behind them several municipal employees were beginning to turn on the Christmas lights in Manger Square.

The temple has undergone a million-dollar renovation since 2013 that was organized by a Palestinian presidential committee. He restored gold-coated mosaics and marble floors to their initial glory, as well as made major structural repairs to the site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Christendom’s oldest churches.

There is still work to be done, said Mazen Karam, director of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, the group behind some of the church’s restorations. The project has already cost $ 17 million, but Karam said another $ 2 million is needed to restore the church tiles and install fire and HVAC systems.

A separate project by the Greek Orthodox Church to restore the iconostasis – an 18th-century wooden partition separating the sanctuary from the building’s nave – was postponed by the pandemic, but is now nearing its end after three years of hard work.

“It has been a huge challenge,” said Saki Pappadopoulos, a woodcarver who works with the Greek restoration company Artis, in charge of the project.

But the Greek Orthodox priest at the basilica, Issa Thaljieh, is feeling optimistic ahead of the Christmas season.

“Thank God, day by day we see more groups arriving in Bethlehem — not staying in Bethlehem, maybe just for a visit — but it’s a good sign,” he said, standing on the marble floor of the church. “Bethlehem without tourists, without people visiting Bethlehem, it is nothing.”

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