BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories: With a giant evergreen tree, colorful balloons in the streets, and selfies at 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 Jesus, the town welcomes thousands of pilgrims and tourists each year for Christmas.
With the lifting of restrictions in the Palestinian territories and Israel, where the closest international airport providing access to Bethlehem is located, the town in the south of the West Bank took on a festive mood.
Scouts marched with bagpipes as thousands of spectators filled the streets, holding balloons and cotton candy.
Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, greeted worshipers when he arrived in the city before leading the annual Christmas Eve procession at the Church of the Nativity.
“Christmas is the town’s celebration and we spent a lot of time and effort preparing for it,” Hanna Hanania, Mayor of Bethlehem, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
We wanted international participation and organized children’s songs and shows with singers from France, South Africa and Malta.
The streets, shops and stone buildings of this Palestinian town, where Christians and Muslims live side by side, have been flooded with tourists.
“It was great to be here,” said 40-year-old American Paul Wittenberger, who came from Michigan to visit with his father and siblings.
“We’ve been here for three days and the weather is fine, we’re lucky to be here from the storm that swept the United States this weekend,” he added.
According to John Hughes, just “hanging out” in Bethlehem made sense.
“It’s a pretty cool city,” the 22-year-old Canadian from Vancouver told AFP.
For him, the birthplace of Jesus “was an important place, especially at Christmas.”
Michael al-Siriani, owner of a pottery and ceramics workshop, is delighted to see tourists flock to the town after two difficult years of empty local hotels.
“Things are much better now after the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. Also, tourists are starting to sleep in the city again,” he said.
The Palestinian Authority, which administers the Israeli-occupied West Bank, confirmed Siriani’s sentiments.
“Since the beginning of this year, especially since March, we started receiving pilgrims and tourists from all over the world,” Palestinian Tourism Minister Rola Maayah told AFP.
So far, we have hosted about 700 thousand tourists from all over the world.”