RAMALLAH: An influx of visitors to Bethlehem ahead of the Easter holiday has been welcomed by tourism chiefs desperate for a return to “business as usual” in the West Bank city, which was hit hard by global travel restrictions during the pandemic.
“Tourist groups are arriving in satisfactory numbers, and we hope that numbers will continue to increase during the year,” Elias Al-Arja, president of the Arab Hotels Association and manager of the Bethlehem Hotel, told Arab News.
Bethlehem relies on tourism for 90 percent of its economic income and has struggled financially since the sector came to a standstill following the global COVID-19 outbreak.
“We closed for two-and-a-half years because of the pandemic,” Al-Arja said.
In previous years, annual tourist numbers climbed to more than 2.5 million.
Al-Arja said that Bethlehem has been promoting itself since the Holy Land reopened to tourism and is now witnessing an influx of visitors, mainly in the form of religious tourism for the Easter season.
However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had also affected visitor numbers, with the two countries and their neighbors normally providing up to 30 percent of religious tourists staying in Bethlehem hotels, Al-Arja said.
The city has 47 hotels, with 4,500 rooms and 9,000 beds, and bookings are running at 30 percent during the Easter season so far.
Hotel operators have refurbished and hired new staff in preparation for the expected rise in tourist numbers.
Al-Arja and other Bethlehem hotel owners are preparing to welcome about 3,500 Egyptian religious tourists between April 15-25, about 2,500 fewer than normally visit the city over the Easter period.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism is promoting religious tourism in the city, and issuing tourist establishments with work permits that ensure their readiness to welcome foreign visitors and comply with coronavirus protocols.
Al-Arja said the ministry has also sponsored several tourist exhibitions, including the Palestine pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020.
Tourism is returning to Bethlehem and the Holy Land under the slogan “Ready,” which highlights the sector’s efforts to comply with COVID-19 protocols.
“We have worked to restore the world’s confidence in the Palestinian tourism sector so that it can resume activity and provide tourism services with the highest standards,” Jeries Qumsyieh, a ministry spokesman in Bethlehem, told Arab News.
Work permits and licenses are granted to tourist establishments only after employees complete training courses to ensure establishments meet health standards and comply with coronavirus safeguards.
Bethlehem is home to many important religious sites, including the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherds’ Field Chapel. The city also has more than 100 shops selling oriental antiques, 400 workshops, restaurants, hotels and shopping centers.
“The return of tourism will contribute to the economic recovery of Bethlehem, which is still suffering from the effects of the pandemic,” said Qumsiyeh.
“The tourism sector was the first to be affected by the outbreak and one of the last sectors to return to life,” he added.
Palestinian tourism promoters have expanded their programs by offering visits to Palestinian camps, as well as a tour of the northern entrance to Bethlehem, where drawings by the international artist Banksy can be seen.