Christians, tourists and many others have deserted the Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christs during the Christmas celebration over fears of contracting the fourth Coronavirus variant, Omicron, from the city.
Except for the residents, many of the places that often attract Christians and tourist, considering their link to the formative years of Jesus Christ, were currently witnessing low patronage, forcing owners of the hotels and others managing the city artifacts to raise concerns over the challenges confronting the commercial base of the region.
Before outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the city where Christians believe Jesus was born, for instance on Saturday, was usually a focal point of the holiday, with thousands packing the streets and filling the hotels.
But after the outbreak, Israel, which controls all entrances to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, barred its borders to foreigners in an effort to rein in infections from the Omicron strain of the coronavirus.
Speaking on the development, a Dutchwoman, Kristel Elayyan, who married to a Palestinian that came to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, described the development as strange.
“Before (the pandemic), you had a bunch of people coming in from different countries to celebrate Christmas, and now you know that everybody who is here is probably not a tourist,” she added.
Last year, Bethlehem curtailed the celebration sharply because of the pandemic, with a virtual tree lighting and just a handful of visiting scout troops. This year, the celebrations are certainly more vibrant, but still just a fraction of their usual size.
“If it’s one year, it’s an interesting experience. But because this is the second year and we don’t know what is going to come in the future, it’s a huge loss for the people here,” Elayyan added.
An upbeat Palestinian tourism minister, Rula Maayah, said it is “thanks to the vaccines” that Bethlehem is celebrating again.
On average, Bethlehem welcomed three million visitors a year before the pandemic, with Christmas alone drawing 10,000 people to the city’s hotels, around half from abroad.
The municipality said it worked this year to appeal to local visitors from Palestinian communities across the Holy Land.
Some hotels were busy, but about a quarter of available rooms citywide were shuttered because of the pandemic, said Elias Arja, head of the Palestinian Hotel Association.
Several businesses kept their doors shut on Friday, despite Christmas Eve being the most important day of the year for Bethlehem.
Inside the Church of the Nativity, visitors were even able to meditate nearly alone at the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born.
A 21-year-old American student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Hudson Harder, said: “Of course there is a selfish part where it’s like, ‘Oh, I get to see this place so empty, but on the other hand you feel for the shops, all the money they are losing.”