For the first time in two years after the COVID pandemic, Bethlehem is finally welcoming Christmas tourists back into the country. Tour groups are crowding the streets and hotels are fully booked. The Israeli-Palestinian fighting has not had an effect on the tourism industry in Bethlehem. Bethlehem has survived the pandemic and the fighting. Bethlehem continues to thrive.

Elias Arja, head of the Bethlehem hotel association, said that tourists are hungry to visit the Holy Land’s religious sites after suffering through lockdowns and travel restrictions in recent years. He expects the rebound to continue into next year.

“We expect that 2023 will be booming and business will be excellent because the whole world, and Christian religious tourists especially, they all want to return to the Holy Land,” said Arja, who owns the Bethlehem Hotel.

Recently, dozens of groups from virtually every continent posed for selfies in front of the Church of the Nativity, built on the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born. A giant Christmas tree sparkled in the adjacent Manger Square, and tourists packed into shops to buy olive wood crosses and other souvenirs.

Christmas is normally peak season for tourism in Bethlehem, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank just a few miles southeast of Jerusalem. In pre-pandemic times, thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world came to celebrate.

But those numbers plummeted during the pandemic. Although tourism hasn’t fully recovered, the hordes of visitors are a welcome improvement and encouraging sign.

“The city became a city of ghosts,” said Saliba Nissan, standing next to a manger scene about 1.3 meters (4 feet) wide inside the Bethlehem New Store, the olive wood factory he co-owns with his brother. The shop was filled with Americans on a bus tour.

Since the Palestinians don’t have their own airport, most international visitors come via Israel. The Israeli Tourism Ministry is expecting some 120,000 Christian tourists during the week of Christmas.

That compares to its all-time high of about 150,000 visitors in 2019, but is far better than last year, when the country’s skies were closed to most international visitors. As it has done in the past, the ministry plans to offer special shuttle buses between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve to help visitors go back and forth.

“God willing, we will go back this year to where things were before the coronavirus, and be even better,” said Bethlehem’s mayor, Hanna Hanania.

He said about 15,000 people attended the recent lighting of Bethlehem’s Christmas tree, and that international delegations, artists and singers are all expected to participate in celebrations this year.

Bassem Giacaman, the third-generation owner of the Blessing Gift Shop, founded in 1925 by his grandfather, said the pandemic was far more devastating to his business than violence and political tensions.

Covered in sawdust from carving olive-wood figurines, jewelry and religious symbols, he said it will take him years to recover. He once had 10 people working for him. Today, he employs half that number, sometimes less, depending on demand.

“The political (situation) does affect, but nothing major,” Giacaman said. “We’ve had it for 60-70 years, and it goes on for a month, then it stops, and tourists come back again.”

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