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    Bethlehem Welcomes Christmas Tourists After Pandemic Ebb

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    After two years, business is back in Bethlehem as thousands of tourists arrive in the city for the Christmas season. This year’s holiday brings a new tune to the industry with tourists who are thirsty to travel again. Airline, hotel and restaurants are fully booked in Jesus’ birthplace, visitors crowd the streets, and tour groups are packed with pilgrims, reports Religion News Service.

    God willing, we will go back this year to where things were before the coronavirus, and be even better. —Hanna Hanania, mayor of Bethlehem

    Elias Arja, head of the Bethlehem hotel association, welcomes this change in tourism in Israel and hopes the rebound will continue into next year. “We expect that 2023 will be booming and business will be excellent because the whole world, and Christian religious tourists especially, they all want to return to the Holy Land.”

    He revealed that hotel owners in Bethlehem participated in international tourism exhibitions to promote the city 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,” the owner of the Bethlehem Hotel said.

    Bethlehem spent weeks of preparations for this peak season as they expect tens of thousands of visitors from different countries to descend on the city, according to Arab News. Tourism contributes 50% in the city’s economy so it’s vital Bethlehem is ready for the throngs of tourists coming for the holidays.

    The Israeli Tourism Ministry forecasts about 120,000 Christian tourists during the Christmas week. The Covid-19 pandemic has crippled the tourism industry not only in Bethlehem, but around the world as well, with establishments closing and people losing their jobs. In 2019. Bethlehem received 150,000 visitors, but that number dropped drastically when the pandemic hit and international travel was temporarily banned.

    “The city became a city of ghosts,” said Saliba Nissan, the co-owner of an olive wood factory.

    The ministry will offer special shuttle buses between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve to help visitors go back and forth to the different tourist spots, including the Church of the Nativity, the Manger Square, and the religious souvenir shops dotting the streets.

    “God willing, we will go back this year to where things were before the coronavirus, and be even better,” said Bethlehem’s mayor, Hanna Hanania.

    The city and tourism ministry launched Christmas activities under the title, “From Bethlehem to the World: The spirit of Christmas Brings us Together” in preparation for the hordes of visitors coming for the special occasion. “All the eyes of the world are currently turning toward Bethlehem in preparation to mark the birth of the child Jesus,” said Hanania.

    Bethlehem’s mayor said about 15,000 people attended the lighting of the city’s giant Christmas tree on December 3, marking the official start of the Christmas season. The Christmas market has opened and other holiday activities at the Bethlehem Peace Center have started. Visitors are coming back and international delegations and artists are expected to join the festivities this year.

    “Recovery has begun significantly,” 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.”

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