Coronavirus casts a cloud over Bethlehem Christmas festivities

No tourists means hard times in the holy city

Elias al-Arja, an owner of the Bethlehem Hotel, said he does not expect business to significantly return to the city until next Christmas season. (photo credit: NOOR KHATIB)
Elias al-Arja, an owner of the Bethlehem Hotel, said he does not expect business to significantly return to the city until next Christmas season.
(photo credit: NOOR KHATIB)
In the place where tradition says the season to be jolly all began, officials and merchants say there is little to celebrate in Bethlehem this Christmas.
And only 12 months ago, a record 3.5 million pilgrims celebrated here.
Maikel Canawati, owner of Three Arches 2 souvenir shop, one of 15 such outlets in the city, told The Media Line what a difference a year makes.
“Last year it was one of the best years ever. 2019 was one of the best in the last 10 years. We would open the shop at 7, sometimes at 6; we received 10 to 15 groups every day,” he said.
The buses brought visitors from places such as the United States, Romania, Poland and the Far East, including Indonesia and the Philippines. The tourists typically bought carved wooden images of religious icons including Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Canawati has not opened his shop to foot traffic in almost 10 months.
He paid his staff their full salaries for March, April and May, then half salaries through September. Now Canawati is sharing what he has with them.
“I treat them like family, not as employees,” he said.
If the tourists do not return to the city soon, he may face some difficult decisions, he says.
“When tourists don’t come to Bethlehem, the whole town is dead,” Canawati said.
Business owners throughout the Palestinian territories have sought financial help from the government of the Palestinian Authority. But Canawati and his fellow merchants are disappointed with the PA’s apparent lack of urgency regarding their needs.
“We met with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh last month to discuss the issues and problems that we are facing in the tourism industry. We reached a point where we received only promises of bank loans to help our employees, but up to this moment we haven’t seen anything,” he said.
Sales manager Balqees Quomsieh, one of Canawati’s 60 employees, told The Media Line that last year Bethlehem was full of tourists, and the shop was open between 14 hours and 16 hours a day during the peak season. “Even the Church of the Nativity was full of people,” she said.
Quomsieh, who speaks fluent English, Indonesian and Arabic, says her entire family has been impacted by the pandemic.
“We have been at home since March, since the last group was here. My family also works in the tourism sector, my dad works for a shipping company, my sister works in a hotel, my brother too, they are all out of a job,” she said.
Quomsieh works a few hours a week, but it is not enough.
“Sometimes I come to work for a couple of hours a week, just to check emails and see if they need anything. Sometime once a month. It’s a hard time, but the owner gives a small amount each month. We manage,” she said.
Throughout Bethlehem, hotels are shuttered and restaurants sit empty because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Elias al-Arja, an owner of the Bethlehem Hotel, one of the largest in the city, told The Media Line the absence of tourists has devastated his 220-room business.
“We used to receive around 10,000 people every day here in Bethlehem, accommodate them and feed them, it was good business. But from March until now, we are just spending money and have zero income,” he said.
All but eight of Arja’s 80 employees have been sent home.
“I have forgotten how tourists look; we haven’t received any of them [this year],” he said.
Arja has given up on this year; he does not expect business to return until next Christmas season. “I think in September we’ll start to get back to where we were in 2019,” he said.
Even though it is closed, Arja comes to check on his hotel every day. Seeing it empty makes him emotional. “Don’t let me cry. You put all your money into one place; this is disaster,” he said.
It has been a difficult year for Arja. He spent his savings and has sold a piece of land to be able to pay his bills; that money is already gone. He also sold an apartment in Ramallah; that money may last him few more months.
It was supposed to be his retirement nest egg.
“When I was working, I had a salary to live on. Now we cut off our salaries as owners and we are spending out of pocket, from our savings,” Arja said.
A year ago, Manger Square was overflowing with pilgrims celebrating the holiday. Now, one is hard-pressed to find any visitors because of the limitations on Christmas festivities imposed by the city.
Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman told The Media Line that the holy city is part of the world and the pandemic is an “international event. And so, Bethlehem is at risk and it [the coronavirus] is dangerous.”
Life before COVID-19 is not the same as life since the pandemic, according to the mayor. “Bethlehem must continue its life, but not in a normal way,” Salman said.
“For the sake of the city, we minimize the participation of people” in public gatherings, he added.
The town revered as Jesus’ birthplace lit its central Christmas tree on Saturday, near the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, but without the usual festive throngs in attendance.
“The community is facing a very difficult and critical economic situation,” Salman said.
For the mayor, this year is a total loss, and he does not expect things to get back to pre-pandemic levels until late 2021. “We don’t see in the near future, the coming few months, that the city will recover economically. So our suffering will continue into next year,” he predicted.
As for Qomsiah, unlike in previous years, she will spend this Christmas at home.
“Sad, really sad. I love Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem. We are not going out of the house,” she said. The holiday celebration, she concluded, “will be in the heart.”
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