The usually-vibrant Christmas season isn’t the same this year in Bethlehem amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The tourism industry — normally brimming this time of year with thousands of pilgrims flocking to the the biblical town revered as Jesus’ birthplace — has been crippled by the virus.
Hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops have been shuttered. And the famed Christmas tree lighting service, as well as midnight Mass — typically attended by religious leaders, local VIPs and hundreds of pilgrims from around the world — have all been scaled back.
“Bethlehem is dead,” said Maryana al-Arja, owner of the 120-room Angel Hotel on the outskirts of the town.
Al-Arja, who herself was infected with the virus, was forced to close the hotel and lay off its entire staff — with no sign of the virus abating or tourists expected to make the trek in the near future.
“We had 351 tourist groups booked in our hotel this year, each one 150 people,” she said. “But they all canceled.”
The West Bank’s first coronavirus outbreak began in that hotel when a group of Greek tourists became infected back in March.
Some 3 million tourists arrived in Bethlehem in 2019, according to Elyas al-Arya, Maryana’s cousin and the head of the city’s hotel association.
This year, that number plummeted to near zero, he said.
“Sixty percent of the city relies on tourism, and their income disappeared when the tourists disappeared,” he said.
The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank including Bethlehem, imposed a new lockdown this week — keeping people indoors from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. to contain a spike in infections.
That lockdown could be extended through Christmas and the new year if infection levels don’t fall. About 65,000 COVID-19 cases, and more than 620 deaths, have been reported in the West Bank.
With Post wires