Bethlehem welcomes back Christmas tourists after pandemic slump

Jack Giacaman is once again looking forward to Christmas. Two pandemic-blighted festive seasons without foreign visitors have taken a heavy toll on his business selling religious gifts in the heart of Bethlehem. But this year, the tourists are returning.

“I’m optimistic,” Giacaman said from his premises on a small street behind the Church of the Nativity, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. “Christmas is a new hope.”

His sentiments are echoed across the city in the occupied West Bank. Roughly half Bethlehem’s income comes from the pilgrims and tourists who are drawn from around the world to its religious sites. And Christmas, when thousands flock to mass in Manger Square and converge on the other sites that play a part in Jesus’ story, is when Bethlehem comes alive.

Local business owners estimate that after two years during which coronavirus lockdowns and airport closures left Bethlehem’s religious sites almost deserted, tourism is now back at about 70 per cent of levels before the pandemic.

Thousands attended the recent lighting of the Christmas tree in Manger Square and the Israeli tourist ministry expects 120,000 Christian visitors will arrive in the Holy Land over the Christmas period — though still some way down on the 150,000 who visited in 2019.

But despite the upturn, the past two years have left deep scars. Like other cities in the West Bank — which has seen an upsurge in violence this year — Bethlehem’s residents are used to turbulence, and the vicissitudes of Israel’s half-century-long occupation. But the speed with which the pandemic stopped business was unlike anything in recent memory.

“I’ve been in tourism for 25 years and this was the worst period ever. Worse than the intifadas, worse than the Gulf war, worse than everything,” said George Kukeyan, general manager of the Ambassador City Hotel.

“The smaller businesses were really hurt . . . I know people who had to sell their land, their jewellery. You have to put food on the table. And you can’t eat land, you can’t eat jewellery.

The Ambassador was forced to take drastic measures to cope with the crisis, cutting its staff from 48 to just eight. Now, as the tourists begin to return, it has started hiring again — but its current staff of about 30 is still well short of pre-pandemic levels.

The pattern has been repeated across the city. Some businesses have shied away from rehiring people because their revenues are still uncertain.

Others have been unable to find staff, because many workers abandoned the tourism sector as the pandemic dragged on. While some found jobs online or in different sectors, others found better-paying positions in Israel or the Israeli settlements that surround the city.

“We’re facing a shortage of workers because we’ve lost ours to the Israeli market,” said Giacaman. “A lot of small businesses that used to help me when I got big orders — the owners of these businesses went to work in construction. They sold their tools, they sold everything. I don’t think they’ll come back.”

A few doors down from Giacaman, Rony Tabash, the third generation to work in his family’s souvenir shop, which traces its history back to 1927, has seen similar trends. “Many people left tourism because they don’t trust it any more. They want a stable job,” he said. “We’re getting back to normal but we bled too much.”

Rony Tabash’s gift shop in Manger Square © Mahmoud Illean/AP

Locals say the pandemic has also left its mark on tourists’ spending patterns. “They’ve come back, but people don’t really have money,” said William Ghattes, who works at the Church of the Nativity, as he watched a tour group filter out of the basilica. “People have more difficulties.”

Bethlehem’s own residents have also become wary about costs. Jamal Qarra, who runs a restaurant on Manger Street, said business had been so bad that he was forced to cut staff numbers from more than a dozen before the pandemic to just a couple.

While a big part of the decline was the absence of foreign tourists, local diners were also being more careful with their money. “I have one client who used to come three times a week — during the day with his friends and in the evening with his wife. Now he comes once a month,” he said. “It will never go back to how it was before.”

Others are less pessimistic. Giacaman said it would take five years for his business to get back to normal, mainly because it would take time to pay back the loans he took out during the pandemic to cover staff wages. But he said Christmas “gives us power to keep going”.

Kukeyan expects a quicker rebound. “We’re full for Christmas week and January looks promising,” he said. “It’ll take time to get over what we experienced in those 15 or 16 months but finally we’re on track.”

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