RAMALLAH â€” Busily arranging the antiques in his small shop in the Manger Square near the Church of Nativity, Laith Adnan Sobh said he hopes this holiday season will be different from the previous Christmases during the pandemic.
Over the past two years, the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on his souvenir shop, but this year Sobh ordered more wood carvings to sell.
â€œI am taking a chance here. Should the city go under lockdown again like the previous two years, I willÂ face new losses,â€ he told Al-Monitor. â€œWe only work during the holiday season, and missing the season means colossal losses for us,â€ Sobh said.
â€œThis year, however, there has been a limited influx of tourists to the city during the month of November, which has slightly improved the economic situation. Itâ€™s not the best season but better than nothing,â€ he added.
Sobh spoke fondly of pre-pandemic times, when tourists flocked to the city and his shop.
â€œIn 2019, we had unprecedented tourism numbers. My shop was full of visitors from all over the world. This year, it is really important for the Palestinian government not to close down the city. We can still count on domestic tourism and local visitors if the city remains open,â€ he said.
Bethlehemâ€™s residents, many of whom rely on tourism for their livelihoods,Â want their city to thrive during the holiday season, but they also fear the threat brought by the new COVID-19 variant.
Nina Atwan owns a Christmas decoration shop in the heart of the city. She also told Al-Monitor that she has noticed a slight improvementÂ this year.
During the past two years, Atwan’s shop had barely any customers. â€œThe festivity and Christmas spirit was missing when the city was closed,â€ she told Al-Monitor. â€œOur shop does not depend on foreign tourism. However, limiting the celebrations to locals â€¦Â created a sad atmosphere that overshadowed the joy of the holidays,â€ she added.
â€œThe holidays mean cheerful and joyful festivities and atmosphere that last for two months,” she said.Â “During this time, the city radiates light and joy, something that has been missing over the past two years.â€
In aÂ Nov. 27Â press conference, the Bethlehem Municipality announced thatÂ with some health precautions,Â public Christmas events would resume, including a municipal Christmas treeÂ and aÂ 10-day Christmas market.
The next day, the Israeli authorities closed the international airport to foreign tourists, many of whom would haveÂ visited the Palestinian territories, following the spread of the new COVID-19 variant.
According to Bethlehem Mayor Antoine Suleiman, however, public festivities will go on. â€œWe were expecting good tourist traffic this year. The closure of Israeli airports will greatly affect us, but will not stop from celebrating,â€ Suleiman told Al-Monitor.
â€œUnder the current circumstances, the events will mainly be limited to local visitors from the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem, and we are really pinning our hopes on Palestinians in the occupied territories to boost the cityâ€™s economy,â€ he added.
He stressed that the events will be held under strict public safety measures, with temperature checks and masking requirements.
In 2019, the city of Bethlehem recorded its highest foreign tourism numbers, with 3.5 million tourists flocking to the city. The pandemic outbreak, however, brought a major setback to the city, where 80% of residents depend on tourism.
Despite some domestic tourism, the sector has barely been kept afloat, according to Elias al-Arja, head of the Arab Hotels Association and owner of the Bethlehem Hotel.
â€œWe are working to keep hotels open with the hope that things will change for the better,â€ he told Al-Monitor.
â€œThere have been hotel reservations this month, albeit limited. Some hotels reopened rooms that have been closed for a while. But the Israeli decision to close the airport killed our hopes. It seems that COVID-19 will ruin the season for us once more, and reservations are likely to be canceled,â€ Arja said.