Press release

'O little town of Bethlehem' - Jesus's birthplace bereft of pilgrims and tourists this Christmas due to Covid-19

This Christmas, the “little town” of Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, for the first time in recent years has “no tourists” because of Covid-19, according to Christian Aid partners.

With most foreigners still prevented from entering Israel due to Covid-19 restrictions, and passage from Jordan suspended, pilgrimages to Bethlehem are at a standstill and partners report that shops, restaurants and hotels are empty.

Normally, despite the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Bethlehem – home to the Church of the Holy Nativity in Manger Square - sees more than 2 million tourists per year, most of whom come at Christmas, which helps boost the Palestinian economy.

Before this year and Covid-19, 2015 was reported as the “worst ever year” since the second intifada, with tourism still at 2.2 million, down 11% from the previous year.

Rami Khader, Director of the YMCA in East Jerusalem, a Christian Aid partner, said:
“Bethlehem is dependent on tourism. Hotels and restaurants are empty, families have lost their only income, livelihoods are in danger as no one knows when the pandemic will be over. It is very unpleasant to walk the empty streets of Bethlehem thinking that it was a vibrant hub of celebration last year. However, our biblical tradition as Bethlehemites, is that we believe that hope will prevail as the promise of the birth became real in our little town of Bethlehem.
“Bethlehem has celebrated the traditional tree-lighting ceremony, which is the first event announcing the Christmas holy season and the birth of Jesus Christ. The event was broadcasted widely, but it wasn’t the same as every year. No locals were celebrating the event, no tourists and there was a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future.”
Suzan Sahori, the Executive Director of Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans, a non-profit NGO and former Christian Aid partner, said:
“These are difficult times for our people. Most of the family-owned workshops are closed, or are working a minimum number of hours.”

However, Suzan described how people are adapting. “During the Coronavirus lockdown, most of the families who gain their livelihood from olive wood product manufacturing planted vegetable gardens on their properties to raise their own food. One such case we observed was with olive wood artisan Jack Nasrallah and his children, who were busy picking ripe vegetables with smiles on their faces.  It was especially beautiful to see the joy on the face of Jack's daughter as she was happily picking zucchini.  Jack and many other artisans have used the downturn in business to work in their gardens, where they can enjoy the fresh produce, the outcome of their hard work in the land.”

William Bell, Head of Middle East Region at Christian Aid, added: “Life in the occupied Palestinian territory is always unpredictable and often extremely hard. Covid-19 has made a bad situation worse.”