Bethlehem’s Inns Are Empty This Christmas

Tourism to the biblical city celebrated as Jesus’ birthplace remains halted with West Bank under lockdown.

The coronavirus has cast a pall over Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, all but shutting down the biblical town revered as Jesus’ birthplace at the height of the normally cheery holiday season.

Missing are the thousands of international pilgrims who normally descend upon the town. Restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops are closed. The renowned Christmas tree lighting service will be limited to a small group of authorized people, as will church services on Christmas Eve.

“Bethlehem is dead,” said Maryana al-Arja, owner of the 120-room Angel Hotel on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

The hotel was the site of the West Bank’s first coronavirus outbreak—when a group of Greek tourists came down with the virus last March.

She kept her 25 workers on staff for several months but ultimately couldn’t continue to pay them. Al-Arja, who herself was infected with the virus, said she has been forced to close the hotel and lay off the entire staff because there is no sign of the pandemic ending or tourists visiting anytime soon.

“We had 351 tourist groups booked in our hotel this year, each one 150 people,” she said. “But they all canceled.”

Elyas al-Arja, the head of the city’s hotel association, said Bethlehem received some 3 million tourists in 2019. With Israel, the main entry point for international visitors to the region, banning tourists because of the coronavirus crisis, and the West Bank’s border crossing with Jordan closed to foreigners, that number is close to zero this year, he said.

“Sixty percent of the city relies on tourism, and their income disappeared when the tourists disappeared,” said al-Arja, a cousin of the Angel Hotel owner.

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