RAMALLAH: Bethlehem was preparing for a “distinguished” celebration of Christmas next month with tens of thousands of visitors from around the world expected to descend on the city, officials said.
The central West Bank city is of special religious and historical importance to Christians, and Bethlehem Municipality, and the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Tourism, have this year launched Christmas activities under the title, “From Bethlehem to the World: The spirit of Christmas Brings us Together.”
Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Hanania said: “All the eyes of the world are currently turning toward Bethlehem in preparation to mark the birth of the child Jesus.”
He pointed out that despite current world crises the event offered an opportunity to unite faithful and peace-loving people and promote freedom and dignity for all.
And by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Hanania noted that visitors were showing their support for the Palestinian presence.
The civic leader told Arab News that the municipality had started gearing up for this year’s Christmas festivities four months ago.
The occasion coincides with the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Bethlehem Municipality and the 10th anniversary of the inclusion of the Church of the Nativity on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
He said: “Bethlehem wears a new suit of joy, and hope has returned to the hearts of the city’s citizens after a long absence, and we look forward to a distinguished Christmas this year.
“Bethlehem and the Holy Land are in dire need of the blessing of peace that does not come at any price, as its highest price is justice, as peace cannot be achieved without justice and love among people.”
He added that the municipality’s aim had been to organize special Christmas celebrations in an atmosphere of joy, starting with a tree lighting ceremony on Dec. 3, Christmas market, and other related activities at the Bethlehem Peace Center and throughout the city.
Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Minister Rula Maayah said this year had witnessed a sharp rise in the number of tourists with post-coronavirus pandemic visitor numbers already reaching 600,000, with a further 100,000 expected next month, pushing hotel occupancy levels up to 80 percent.
Elias Al-Arja, head of the Palestinian Hotels Association and owner of the Bethlehem Hotel, told Arab News that he anticipated many hotels in Bethlehem to be full during the Christmas holidays and new year period.
He said that in recent months he had joined several Bethlehem hotel owners, backed by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, in promoting the city at international tourism exhibitions in Spain, Italy, Romania, the UK, and Turkey.
“We have begun to feel and sense the presence of a Christmas atmosphere in Bethlehem early this year,” he added.
Al-Arja noted that the tourism sector in Bethlehem — that has a Christian-dominated population of around 30,000 — had been the first to suffer from the impact of the pandemic and the last to recover from it.
Fifty percent of Bethlehem’s economy relies on tourism with the city having 56 hotels with a combined 4,500 rooms that can accommodate 9,000 people, almost 100 oriental antique stores, 400 traditional craft workshops, and 20 large restaurants.
The Palestinian Central Statistics Center revealed that in 2020 to 2021 the tourism sector lost $1.5 billion due to the pandemic.
Jeries Qumsiyeh, director at the Palestinian Ministry of Archeology and Antiquities in Bethlehem, told Arab News that this year the ministry was looking to spotlight the religious, heritage, and tourism components of not only Bethlehem but the cities of Jerusalem and Nazareth too.