The gloom of two years of Covid-19 pandemic has been replaced by cheerful Christmas spirit this year in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, with the return of pilgrims lifting the mood of the locals so heavily dependent on tourism.
Some five groups from different parts of India also joined the celebrations. "A total of about 250 Indian tourists came this year to attend the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem. They were joined by many Indians who live here," Ashok Ravi, the CEO of Scopus World Travel Ltd, told PTI.
Father Sleeba Kattumangantu, Cor Episcopa of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Kerala, led a group of 50 pilgrims to Bethlehem who came from Kochi for Christmas. "We prayed for peace in the Holy Land. We just hope people peacefully resolve their differences," Father Sleeba said.
There is a small community of Syrian Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem and a rather large one in Bethlehem. The Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem also has a prayer hall for the community. The traditional march led by Palestinian boy and girl scouts kicked off Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on Saturday with a colourful march through Manger Square.
Playing drums and bagpipes they paraded past a giant Christmas tree in the Manger Square outside the ancient Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. The manger square, the centre of festivities, buzzed with activities despite overcast conditions along with occasional rain. Foreign tourists could be seen snapping selfies around the sparkly-lit Christmas tree.
Israel's tourism ministry said that an estimated 1,20,000 tourists and pilgrims from all over the world were expected to attend the celebrations, marking a sharp recovery and bringing the inflow of tourists close to 2019's record number of around 1,50,000.
While the full figures for 2022 are not yet available, a ministry spokesperson said that an estimated 1.2 million Christian tourists arrived in Israel from January to November this year. The ministry arranged free round-trip shuttles between Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the festivities.
Covid-19 had almost completely decimated Bethlehem’s tourism industry. The hotels, restaurants, olive woodworking and souvenir shops are estimated to have lost about $200 million in revenues, the local municipality said. This year, however, is one of the rebounds with Bethlehem’s 5,000 hotel rooms once again fully booked.
A lot of visitors to Israel and the Palestinian territories choose to stay in the West Bank city of Bethlehem as it is much cheaper than Jerusalem. "Tourism is a vital sector of the Palestinian economy, accounting for about 15 per cent of the Palestinian Authority’s gross domestic product," said Fadi, a local tour operator.
"Tourism to Palestine is gradually getting back to the pre-pandemic numbers as 7,00,000 tourists have visited Palestine since the start of the year," said Palestinian Authority's (PA) Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Rula Maayah. She said the reservations for the first quarter of the year 2023 indicate a hotel occupancy rate of more than 85 per cent.
In view of the rebound, the PA Tourism Minister said that four new hotels are going to open in Bethlehem by the middle of January. The foundation stone to build ten hotels in Bethlehem was laid before the pandemic in 2018 and 2019 when it saw a major influx of tourists to the West Bank town.
Jerusalem and Bethlehem are the main destinations for foreign tourists who visit the Holy Land. The Nativity Church in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is popular for tourists during the Christmas season, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City, the location of the crucifixion and burial of Christ, is also popular among tourists during Easter and throughout the year.
The restaurants in the area also came alive with most of them looking fully packed and people having to be accommodated outside. Late in the morning on Sunday as tourists woke up leisurely having attended the midnight mass, the eateries around were back in their festive look.
"Foreign tourists are generous with tips. The last few days have been very rewarding working at the restaurant. It has almost brought me tips worth a few months of my salary," Khalid, a waiter at a coffee shop close to the Manger square, told PTI.
Shopkeepers also looked quite pleased even though they were still complaining of the setback from the pandemic period. "Business has picked up. It gives a sense of recovery but just keeping fingers crossed that there are no major hiccups on the way. The news of Covid-19 making a return is worrisome," said Joseph, a shopkeeper owning a gift shop close to the Church of Nativity.
Top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaball, on Saturday led a procession from Jerusalem marking the beginning of the celebrations. He covered the last part of the way on foot to the site where Jesus is believed to have been born in Bethlehem. Security was on high alert in Bethlehem as paramilitary, Palestinian police armed with assault rifles patrolled the cobblestone streets.
Israel eased security restrictions and made all possible efforts to make tourists feel safe. The Christmas festivities traditionally bring a boost of holiday cheer to Christians in the Holy Land, whose numbers have shrunk over the decades relative to the general population and now make up just a minority in Jesus' birthplace.
The city today has a strong Muslim majority of at least 70 per cent, with only 30 per cent Christians. It was once a Christian-dominated city but emigration arising out of a wave of violence and economic hardships has seen its Christian residents moving to several countries across the world.