With a giant evergreen tree, colourful balloons in the streets and selfies in the Church of the Nativity, Christmas tourism has returned to Bethlehem after two years of Covid-related restrictions.
Revered in Christian tradition as the birthplace of Christ, the town of Bethlehem welcomes thousands of pilgrims and tourists for Christmas every year, a windfall that dried up over the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions.
Now with restrictions lifted in the Palestinian territories and Israel, where the closest international airport with access to Bethlehem is located, the southern West Bank town has taken on a festive air.
Scouts marched with bagpipes as thousands of onlookers lining the streets held balloons and cotton candy.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, greeted worshippers upon his arrival to the town, ahead of leading the annual Christmas eve procession at the Church of the Nativity.
“Christmas is the town’s celebration, and we put in a lot of time and effort to prepare for it,” Bethlehem mayor Hanna Hanania told AFP.
“We wanted to have international participation, and organised children’s songs and shows with singers from France, South Africa and Malta,” he added.
Tourists converged on the streets, shops and stone buildings of this Palestinian town, where Christians and Muslims live side by side.
It was “wonderful to be here”, said Paul Wittenberger, a 40-year-old American from Michigan who was visiting with his father and siblings.
“We’ve been here for three days and the weather’s nice, we’re lucky to be here out of the storm” sweeping the United States this weekend, he said.
To John Hughes, just “hanging out” in Bethlehem was meaningful.
“It’s a pretty cool city,” said the 22-year-old Canadian from Vancouver.
For him, the birthplace of Christ was a “significant place — especially on Christmas”.
Michael al-Siriani, who owns a pottery and ceramics workshop, was delighted to see tourists flocking back to the town after two difficult years, which had seen local hotels standing empty.
“Things are much better now after the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. “Besides, tourists have started to sleep in the city again.”
The Palestinian Authority, which governs the Israeli-occupied West Bank, confirmed Siriani’s feelings.
“Since the beginning of this year, but more specifically since March, we have begun receiving pilgrims and tourists from all over the world,” Palestinian tourism minister Rola Maayah told AFP.
“Until now, we have received about 700,000 tourists from around the world,” she said.
Meanwhile on Saturday, pilgrims were deep in prayer in the Church of the Nativity while others took selfies wearing red and white Santa Claus caps, hours before the traditional midnight mass and its wishes for peace.