Bethlehem, Nazareth struggle on Christmas without tourists

PALESTINIAN CHRISTIAN AFFAIRS: Many Christians in Bethlehem and Nazareth are aware that local tourism alone will not change the harsh reality of life under coronavirus.

 A MAN DRESSED as Santa meets people on a Bethlehem street, earlier this month. (photo credit: REUTERS/MUSSA QAWASMA)
A MAN DRESSED as Santa meets people on a Bethlehem street, earlier this month.

For Nehad Shomaly-Handal and many Christians in Bethlehem and Nazareth, this is going to be another sad Christmas.

Residents of the two cities were hoping that tourists from all around the world would join them in celebrating Christmas this year, after the government’s decision to ease coronavirus restrictions.

But now that the restrictions have been reinstated, preventing tourists from entering Israel, there is hope in Bethlehem and Nazareth that local tourism would prevent the total downfall of the tourism industry.

Bethlehem is hoping that residents of east Jerusalem and Arab citizens of Israel will replace foreign tourists and pilgrims.

In Nazareth, there is hope that Israeli Jews, Muslims and Christians who were forced to remain in the country because of coronavirus restrictions in Europe and other countries will come to the city to celebrate Christmas.

THE EXTERIOR OF the Church of the Nativity and a Christmas tree at Manger Square on Christmas eve, in Bethlehem. (credit: YOSRI ALJAMAL/REUTERS)THE EXTERIOR OF the Church of the Nativity and a Christmas tree at Manger Square on Christmas eve, in Bethlehem. (credit: YOSRI ALJAMAL/REUTERS)

Yet many Christians in Bethlehem and Nazareth are aware that local tourism alone will not change the harsh reality of life under coronavirus.

They are convinced that it will take months or years before the tourism industry recovers from the severe blow it was dealt after the outbreak of the pandemic. They also know that it could take weeks, if not months, before they see foreign tourists on the streets of Bethlehem and Nazareth.

“The situation in Bethlehem is very difficult,” said Nehad, who, together with her husband, Sharbel, owns and manages a large furniture store in the city. “Since the outbreak of coronavirus, most people have been living on their savings. Many families have had no income for nearly two years.”

The mother of four said that she is determined not to allow the pandemic to destroy her family’s joy over Christmas. That’s why the family has already set up the Christmas tree in their living room.

But she knows many families who can’t afford to buy the tree and Christmas decorations.

“A Christmas tree can cost anything between NIS 2,000 and NIS 3,000,” Nehad pointed out. “Because of the crisis, many people are not putting up the tree this year. Some don’t even have enough money to buy food.”

Many Christians, especially those working in the tourism sector, have been forced to take loans with high interest, while others have closed their businesses, Nehad said.

“Most Christians here work in the tourism sector,” she added. “But because there’s no tourism, they have been left without work and money. People can’t even afford to go to a restaurant these days. The only ones who come to the restaurants are [Arab] residents of Jerusalem or Arab-Israelis.”

Nehad said that, nevertheless, she and her family have no intention of staying at home on Christmas Eve.

“The Christmas celebration is a symbol of peace, and we don’t want to miss it,” she said. “Some people are afraid to go to church, because of coronavirus, but we wear masks and take precautionary measures. There have been many death cases in Bethlehem because of the virus. But we will go out.”

The residents of Bethlehem were hoping that the tourists and pilgrims would start arriving in the city at the beginning of November, after Israel decided to allow vaccinated tourists into the country from November 1.

But then came the Omicron variant, and with it the travel restrictions.

“This will be the second Christmas without tourists and pilgrims from all around the world,” said Amir Mubarak, a retired schoolteacher from the nearby town of Beit Jala. “The virus has deprived us of enjoying another Christmas. Many families feel they are suffering.”

Those who are less pessimistic are hoping that Arab citizens of Israel or Arab residents of Jerusalem (most of whom are not Israeli citizens, but hold Israeli-issued ID cards) will come to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas. Thousands of Arab-Israelis and Jerusalem residents visit Bethlehem every week for shopping and dining.

SIMILARLY, THE residents of Nazareth have also been badly affected by the coronavirus travel restrictions. And like the residents of Bethlehem, several people in Nazareth said that they felt sad and unhappy because of the ongoing crisis.

Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam, who has been in his job for the past eight years, said that despite the gloomy mood, he is still hoping that many Israelis will come to the city to celebrate Christmas.

“This year, Nazareth will try to compensate for the loss of last year’s Christmas celebrations, when there was no joy,” said Salam, who is a Muslim.

“This year, we wanted to bring joy to the families, and that’s why we started preparations for the celebrations already in September. We lit the Christmas tree earlier this month, and the city is full of decorations. We also have two Christmas markets. We want to attract local tourists to our city.

“Many people will not be traveling to Europe to celebrate Christmas, because of coronavirus. We are hoping that they will come to Nazareth instead. We expect tens of thousands of people on Christmas Eve. We tell everyone that Nazareth is a city of peace, security and coexistence. This is the city of love and hope.”

Salam said that he sees himself as the mayor of “all the residents of Nazareth, Christians and Muslims alike.” He emphasized: “I’m a Muslim mayor for Christians and Muslims in this city.”

The mayor said that hope was replaced with frustration when the government recently decided to reinstate the travel restrictions, effectively banning tourists from entering the country.

“More than 80% of our income depends on tourism,” Salam explained. “Most of our hotels are closed. As mayor, I’m trying to help as much as I can. At this stage, it seems that the government does not know how to handle the crisis. Many Israeli Jews visit the city on weekends and they feel safe. I invite everyone to Nazareth, the city of peace.”

Father Semaan Bajjali, priest of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, said that he is fully aware of the common suffering of the residents of Nazareth and Bethlehem.

“Nazareth and Bethlehem are Siamese twins,” he remarked. “Despite the geographic distance and the borders, the two cities are closely connected. We can’t be separated from each other; we breathe together, celebrate together and are affected together by any hardship.”

Bajjali noted that, last year, the two cities held limited celebrations for Christmas, because of the pandemic. But the easing of the coronavirus restrictions this year saw thousands of Christians in Bethlehem and Nazareth participate in the lighting of the Christmas trees in their cities.

“Last year, we celebrated the lighting of the tree without people,” Father Bajjali said. “The pandemic prevented us from seeing the joy of the children during the ceremony. We talked in front of screens, without being able to see the feelings of the people and their reactions.

“We thank God that this year we were able to reunite and see the happiness of all those who came to celebrate, Muslims and Christians alike.”

Asked about the difference in the celebrations between the two cities, the priest said that the Palestinian Authority covers all the costs in Bethlehem, while in Nazareth the churches and other institutions are left alone to pay for the “very expensive” festivities.

Haim Salami, director-general of Ramada Hotel in Nazareth, sounded less optimistic. Like many of his colleagues in Bethlehem, he, too, complained about the hardships facing the tourism sector.

His hotel, which opened in 2017, did well until the outbreak of coronavirus early last year.

“Sadly, our hotel has been badly hit by the pandemic,” said Salami. “Although we are open, many of our workers have not returned. We don’t know where we are standing now as a tourism sector. All the reservations [from abroad] have been canceled.”

Still, he added, some Israelis are planning to come to Nazareth in the next few days, “which is better than nothing.”

Nabil Totry, director of The Christmas March Association in Nazareth, said that he is grateful that the situation in Israel is better than in Europe, where many countries are suffering from coronavirus restrictions.

“We are happy that we are in Nazareth and that everything is still open,” he said. “Here, we were at least able to hold some celebrations. In Europe, the situation appears to be difficult. Last year, we didn’t feel the climate of Christmas, and many people were sad. This year, however, we were lucky to have thousands attend the lighting of the tree. You could see the joy on the faces of the people.”

Totry said that his optimism was mainly based on the fact that 25,000 to 30,000 people visited the Christmas market in Nazareth in the first 10 days of December.

“We expect more people to join us for Christmas celebrations later this month,” he said. “We invite Muslims, Jews and Christians to come to Nazareth.”

Totry and other Nazareth residents said that they do not believe that the upsurge in violent crime in Nazareth and other Arab communities would keep visitors away.

“We are part of the Arab sector, and we, too, have violent crime,” Totry said. “But those coming to celebrate need to know that they are safe. Nazareth is a safe and beautiful city.”•