The coronavirus has cast a pall over Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, all but shutting down the biblical town revered as Jesus’ birthplace at the height of the normally cheery holiday season.
Missing are the thousands of international pilgrims who normally descend upon the town. Restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops are closed. The renowned Christmas tree lighting service will be limited to a small group of authorized people, as will church services on Christmas Eve.
“Bethlehem is dead,” said Maryana al-Arja, owner of the 120-room Angel Hotel on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
The hotel was the site of the West Bank’s first coronavirus outbreak — when a group of Greek tourists came down with the virus last March.
Drop in tourists
Elyas al-Arja, the head of the city’s hotel association, said Bethlehem received some 3 million tourists in 2019. With Israel, the main entry point for international visitors to the region, banning tourists because of the coronavirus crisis, and the West Bank’s border crossing with Jordan closed to foreigners, that number is close to zero this year, he said.
“Sixty percent of the city relies on tourism, and their income disappeared when the tourists disappeared,” said al-Arja, a cousin of the Angel Hotel owner.
Mahmoud Tarman, the hotel’s receptionist, said the Ambassador has brought back eight of its 60 workers to serve local guests. But with the West Bank’s economy devastated by repeated lockdowns, it remains unclear how many people will come.
“At this time of the year, this empty hotel would be bustling with life. But as you see, there is no life, not even a Christmas tree yet,” he said as he pointed at the empty lobby.
Officials say the lockdown could be extended through Christmas and into the new year if the infection levels don’t come down. The Health Ministry has reported a total of about 65,000 coronavirus cases in the West Bank, and over 620 deaths.
Christmas Eve celebrations limited
Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, said the city had planned to receive 3,000 invited guests, including local scout troops and musical bands from around the world that normally entertain visitors during Christmas Eve festivities.
He said the famed Christmas tree lighting, scheduled on Thursday, will be limited to just 15 guests, including local mayors, the district governor and the Latin Patriarch and other clergy. The 85-year-old Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who usually joins the celebration, has been invited but has not said whether he will attend.