Bethlehem is pinning its hopes on the upcoming Easter season as a way for the city to regain some of the tourism it lost during the years of the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 restrictions virtually collapsed the city’s economy which relies on tourism for 90% of its revenue. Israel’s border closures during the two-and-a-half years of the pandemic made it impossible for tourists to visit the Palestinian territories as well.
At Christmas time, Bethlehem was quiet and abandoned, the usually bustling Manger Square bereft of Christian tourists who would have been making their way to the birthplace of Jesus for the holiday. Before March 2020 – with the first outbreak of COVID-19 reported in Bethlehem – the city received up to more than 2.5 million visitors annually.
Now, however, Bethlehem is preparing for an influx of tourists under the slogan “Ready.” Hotel owners have refurbished hotels and hired new staff in hopes of welcoming large groups of tourists.
“Tourist groups are arriving in satisfactory numbers, and we hope that numbers will continue to increase during the year,” Elias Al-Arja, president of the Arab Hotels Association and manager of the Bethlehem Hotel, told Arab News. “We closed for two-and-a-half years because of the pandemic.”
The city’s 47 hotels report that bookings are running at 30% during Easter season so far. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has affected Christian tourism from Ukraine and neighboring countries with the normally high numbers of tourism from that region – which normally supply up to 30% of Christian tourists staying in Bethlehem – expected to drop. Bethlehem is also expecting 3,500 tourists from Egypt during Easter, which is around 2,500 less than normally visit the city at this time of year.
“We have worked to restore the world’s confidence in the Palestinian tourism sector so that it can resume activity and provide tourism services with the highest standards,” Jeries Qumsyieh, a ministry spokesman in Bethlehem, said. “The return of tourism will contribute to the economic recovery of Bethlehem, which is still suffering from the effects of the pandemic. The tourism sector was the first to be affected by the outbreak and one of the last sectors to return to life.”
Tourism is also returning to Eilat, Tel Aviv, and the rest of Israel, where hotels are once again filling up after the pandemic nearly wiped out the tourism industry.
Tour guides are reporting that they are finally busy again.
“This Passover is the busiest I’ve ever seen. And the summer looks very, very good,” according to Moshe Hamburg, a tour guide who deals mostly with religious Jewish tourists.
Another tour guide, Daniel Bishara Sahwani, said that Christian tours and pilgrimages are “already back strong” while tour organizers for younger Jewish tourists reported similar interest, such as Rabbi Ari Gruen, trips director for Olami International and its affiliates.
“Our main audience is Jewish students and young professionals. Right now, demand for the summer is very, very high,” Guren said. “After amassing a backlog of people who wanted to come over the last two years but couldn’t, we are getting everything in place for a busy summer. It could very well be bigger than pre-COVID levels.”