After 2 years of coronavirus curbs, Xmas zeal brings tourists to Bethlehem

After 2 years of coronavirus curbs, Xmas zeal brings tourists to Bethlehem

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, greeted worshippers upon his arrival to the town

With a giant evergreen tree, colourful balloons in the streets and selfies in the Church of the Nativity, Christmas tourism has returned to Bethlehem after two years of coronavirus-related restrictions.

Revered in Christian tradition as the birthplace of Christ, the town of Bethlehem welcomes thousands of pilgrims and tourists for Christmas every year, a windfall that dried up over the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions.

Now with restrictions lifted in the Palestinian territories and Israel, where the closest international airport with access to Bethlehem is located, the southern West Bank town has taken on a festive air. Scouts marched with bagpipes as thousands of onlookers lining the streets held balloons and cotton candy.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, greeted worshippers upon his arrival to the town, ahead of leading the annual Christmas eve procession at the Church of the Nativity.

"Christmas is the town's celebration, and we put in a lot of time and effort to prepare for it," Bethlehem mayor Hanna Hanania told reporters.

"We wanted to have international participation, and organised children's songs and shows with singers from France, South Africa and Malta," he added.

'Significant place'

Tourists converged on the streets, shops and stone buildings of this Palestinian town, where Christians and Muslims live side by side. It was "wonderful to be here," said Paul Wittenberger, a 40-year-old American from Michigan who was visiting with his father and siblings.

"We've been here for three days and the weather's nice, we're lucky to be here out of the storm" sweeping the United States this weekend, he said.

To John Hughes, just "hanging out" in Bethlehem was meaningful. "It's a pretty cool city," the 22-year-old Canadian from Vancouver told reporters.

For him, the birthplace of Christ was a "significant place – especially on Christmas." Michael Al Siriani, who owns a pottery and ceramics workshop, was delighted to see tourists flocking back to the town after two difficult years, which had seen local hotels standing empty.

"Things are much better now after the coronavirus pandemic," he said. "Besides, tourists have started to sleep in the city again."

The Palestinian Authority, which governs the Israeli-occupied West Bank, confirmed Siriani's feelings. "Since the beginning of this year, but more specifically since March, we have begun receiving pilgrims and tourists from all over the world," Palestinian tourism minister Rola Maayah said.

Meanwhile, Gaza Christians have said that travel curbs separate families at Christmas. As pilgrims from around the world flock to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth for Christmas, members of Gaza's Christian community wait to hear whether Israel will grant them a travel permit.

This year, Israeli authorities have approved travel for nearly 600 Palestinian Christians in Gaza, according to COGAT, a unit in Israel's defence ministry that coordinates civilian issues with Palestinians.

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But Palestinians say Israel's permit allocations deny many families a rare opportunity to leave the Strip and travel together because permits are not always granted to all family members.

"It is a tragedy when the mother or the father gets a permit and not the children or the opposite. That means there is no travel and there is no celebration," Suhail Tarazi, director of Gaza's Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), said.

"Such suffering happens to many families and it is repeated every year," Tarazi told Reuters during a tree-lighting celebration in Gaza City on Dec.10.

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