While the years following the Covid were marked by a tourist vacuum, Bethlehem is gradually regaining its past liveliness, with tourists flocking to the Manger Square to visit the renowned Church of the Nativity, the symbol of Christianity. Mostly in guided groups, sometimes alone or with their families, tourists from all over the world walk the streets of Bethlehem’s old town, helping to make the city dynamic again.
“We had very bad days during the Coronavirus pandemic and we stayed at home with our wives and family, without work. But for the last two months, we can see some tourists but not exactly what we expected. I hope that in the future it will increase and it will be good” said Issa, one of the many tour guides who are in charge of telling the history of the city and its historical monuments. Indeed, if tourism seems to have regained the city, the number of foreigners is certainly not at its former level.
It even seems that Corona has transformed tourism and the way tourists visit the city. Jack, a souvenir store owner is particularly affected by this new tourism, which he says is controlled by guides and bus drivers: “Many shops are empty and the reason is that guides and bus drivers are asking us for huge commissions, more than 40 percent, and it is cutting our income so we depend on a small number of tourists“.
While tourism is one of the main sources of income for the residents and the city, the pandemic, and the subsequent shutdown of tourism have resulted in the loss of jobs for many residents. Parish priest from the Nativity Church, Father Issa Thaljieh, said sadly: “Some people are not working until now, they are working inside of Israel, around the area, some of them immigrated to other countries in the world.” The collapse of the tourism sector has been compensated by government measures on wages: pay cuts and laying off workers have been implemented as a way of mitigating the loss of revenue resulting from the outbreak of COVID.
For Jack, the increased control of tourism is accentuated by the Israeli authorities: “Most of the tour guides come from Israel and from Israeli companies that work with some of the local population. Unfortunately, since the Oslo agreements, we follow Israel. What Israel imposes, we follow. We have authority without authority, that’s the real meaning. So we, Palestinians, we don’t have airports, we have to depend on Israel to get tourists in and out and Israeli guides to help in the area.”
This is also the feeling of Ghada, a Palestinian from Beit Jalah living in the Netherlands. She has been disappointed by the growing control by Israeli on tourism as she was visiting the Herodion Mountain with her family: “Today, we went to the Herodion Mountain, it was kind of sad because it has changed completely, we had to pay entry to the Israeli authority. The whole story is a different narrative than the one I would have wanted to hear.”
The resumption of tourism in Bethlehem is essential for the benefit of the city. Otherwise, the city’s economy will continue to be severely impacted. Khaled, a tourist guide in the city for 12 years confirms: “It gives us an economy, it generates income, not only for the guides but also for the markets, for the hotel, for all the tourism sectors. Otherwise, without tourism, Bethlehem is a sad city, because it is the main income of the city“.
For his part, the spokesman for the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Mr. Jeries Qumsyieh, said that the government has taken a few measures to help the tourism sector: “We have had many things done to help the private sectors, such as the program called ‘Jehzin’, which tried to help the private sector to be ready to come back to work after this crisis“.
The latest Israeli attacks in Gaza and Nablus in early August have raised concerns about the impact on tourism and worried some residents, such as this vendor in Manger Square: “It impacted a little bit, but thank God it ended quickly. It is sure, it is more important that it ends quickly and not to lose human lives. We hope that it will not have too much impact“.
Despite that, tourists from all around the world are coming to visit the Holy Land those last few months, and it seems that they were charmed by Palestinian hospitality, as Elena and her friend from Chicago: “The Palestinian people are super welcoming, they have been really nice, helpful, tell us where to go. Everybody has been really friendly.”