AFTER 20 months without pilgrims, Bethlehem can now welcome overseas visitors again this Christmas, as Israel eases its Covid restrictions.
As pilgrimages have been cancelled or postponed until next year, however, there is expected to be only a trickle of visitors over the next few months, leaving those dependent on income from the tourism sector facing mounting debts.
The director of the charity Friends of the Holy Land, Brendan Metcalfe, said that most people in Bethlehem did not expect tourism to pick up until next autumn.
Friends of the Holy LandMary faced a bill of £1200 after the birth of baby Anton
“This is the second Christmas for people in Bethlehem with very little income. Around 80 per cent of people rely on tourism for their income, and it’s been very tough.”
Pilgrimages are organised months in advance, and it would take time for pilgrimage operators to book in tours again, he said. Some booked for this winter have been postponed until next year.
The Israeli government eased travel restrictions to allow overseas visitors this month; but just over 30,000 tourists entered Israel in the first half of November, compared with 421,000 in November 2019, according to Israel’s Interior Ministry.
According to a joint report by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the tourism sector in Palestine is still in decline. Bethlehem, which receives more than 60 per cent of all the hotel guests and visitors to the West Bank, is most affected, the report says.
It estimates that the international tourism sector lost $1 billion owing to lockdowns in 2020.
In the first half of 2021, the number of hotel guests in the West Bank was recorded at 58,765, of whom more than 77 per cent were Palestinians from inside Israel. Local residents or visitors accounted for 22.5 per cent, and only 0.3 per cent were from outside Palestine.
A Christian Palestinian tourism-business owner in Bethlehem, Elias El-Hazin, said: “Currently, there is almost no tourism. Hotels and tour bookings in Bethlehem used to hit maximum capacity — today we are talking about less than one per cent of those highs.
“Many families were really impacted by this. Fortunately, I have an income from teaching at university, but some families rely almost entirely on tourism. They have been unable to make a living or send their kids to school or university. Everything was affected.”
Friends of the Holy Land has warned that many households plunged into debt by the pandemic are unable to pay for food and medical care for their families.
The charity has been giving out £9000 a month in emergency aid to families in the city, most of which has gone on medical bills as people rely on foodbanks for food.
One of those helped by the charity is a nursery worker, Mary Abu Hanna, who had to pay £1200 for a caesarean section and hernia operation — three times the family’s monthly income. Her husband, Samer, worked at the Church of the Nativity as a guide.
The charity has now launched an appeal to raise funds for people needing medical help, including pregnant women. Mr Metcalfe said: “Remembering the birth of Christ is such a powerful, moving celebration for Christians. But this Christmas, we are also urging people to remember the mothers, like Mary, who are preparing to give birth in the Holy Land today.
“The total collapse of the tourism industry in the place where Jesus was born has left mothers filled with anxiety. A regular hospital birth means a bill of around £360, or £800 for a straightforward caesarean. These figures are way out of reach for the vast majority of families.
“Every week, our Holy Land office hears more stories of people needing urgent treatment — from dentistry to cancer — that they simply can’t afford. These Christian families who live in such an unstable land have been left with next to nothing since Covid shut their livelihoods down.”
He urged people to come back on pilgrimage soon. “Pilgrims are desperately needed as the main way of sustaining the economy and helping people to have hope again,” he said.
The charity has published a prayer resource for Advent and Christmas, Christmas Voices from the Holy Land, with contributions from Christians living in Bethlehem and Nazareth. Proceeds from this will go to the appeal.