Birthplace of Christ according to Christian tradition, the city of Bethlehem welcomes thousands of pilgrims and tourists every year for Christmas, a windfall that has dried up in the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions sanitary facilities that had complicated travel.
Now that restrictions have been lifted in the Palestinian Territories and in Israel, where the closest international airport to Bethlehem is located, the Palestinian city is taking on a festive air.
“Christmas is the city’s party, and we have taken a lot of time and made a lot of effort to prepare for it,” Hanna Hanania, the mayor of the municipality, told AFP.
“We wanted to have international participation, and we organized songs and shows for children with singers from France, South Africa and Malta,” he adds.
The streets, shops and stone buildings of this Palestinian town, where Christians and Muslims live together, see many tourists like James Wittenberger, a 70-year-old American from Michigan (northeastern United States) with his four children.
“It’s a wonderful place. We’ve been here for three days and the weather is nice. We’re lucky to be here, far from the storm”, which is hitting the United States this weekend, underlines Paul, his 40 year old son.
“I walk around this wonderful city. And I meditate on the fact that it is a holy place, the birthplace of Christ, it is an important place, especially at Christmas”, breathes on his side John Haves, 22, from Vancouver, on the Canadian west coast.
Owner of a pottery and ceramics workshop, Michael Al-Sirani is delighted to see tourists flocking back to the holy city after two difficult years which had notably pushed local hotels to close their doors.
“We are starting to feel that things are improving after Corona (the coronavirus epidemic, editor’s note). Besides, tourists have started to sleep in the city again,” he said.
An observation confirmed by the Palestinian Authority, which sits in the West Bank, a territory occupied since 1967 by Israel and where the city of Bethlehem is located.
“Since the beginning of this year, but more specifically since March, we have started to receive tourists and pilgrims from all over the world. The number of tourists has continued to increase to a total of 700,000 tourists from all over the world”, explains to AFP Rola Maayah, Palestinian Minister of Tourism.
Pilgrims meditate in the Basilica of the Nativity while others multiply selfies, their heads wearing red and white Santa Claus hats, a few hours from the traditional midnight mass and wishes for peace.