25 November 2021
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the old city of Bethlehem in the West Bank was busy with visitors in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
But for the last two years, hotels are empty or closed. No one is coming to the shops.
A historic piece of woodwork inside the famous Church of the Nativity is being cleaned. However, not very many people will see how good it looks this year.
Bethlehem, known from the Bible as the birthplace of Jesus, is inside an area of the Middle East controlled by Israel, known as the West Bank. Israel opened to visitors who have been vaccinated earlier in November, but not many people are coming to Bethlehem.
In 2019, the city was busy with people visiting historic places such as the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square.
Aladdin Subuh runs a shop near the square. He said he has no customers. He only opens the door to let in fresh air.
"For two years, no business," he said. "It's like dying slowly."
The global health crisis reduced visitors in both Israel and Palestine. But the city of Bethlehem's economy depends on visitors, so the situation is especially bad.
In the first part of this month, 30,000 visitors came to Israel. In November 2019, over 400,000 people came.
There is some government help for business owners in Bethlehem, but not much.
Majed Ishaq is marketing director for the Palestinian Tourism Ministry. He said the Palestinian government is offering some businesses who depend on visitors from other nations ways to pay less tax and some new training. Ishaq's organization is working to encourage more people to come to Bethlehem this year.
But Fadi Kattan is not hopeful.
He is a chef and runs a hotel in the old part of Bethlehem.
"I don't think tourism will come back very soon," he said. He closed his hotel in 2020 and does not plan to open it before Christmas.
Kattan said it will take a long time for the city to recover from the COVID-19 restrictions, and business owners want to be sure they can stay open for a long time if they re-open.
While people like Kattan are uncertain about the future. Work goes on at Bethlehem's historic sites. At the Church of the Nativity, workers are finishing a cleaning and repair project that started in 2013. Gold tiles and marble floors look new again. Workers put holiday lights in Manger Square. Unlike in 2019, visitors these days can enter the church without a long wait.
More work needs to be done, however, raising the total cost of repair to almost $20 million.
Saki Pappadopoulos is a woodcarver working on another old piece at the city's Greek Orthodox Church. He said the project was "a big challenge" that took three years. But it is almost finished.
Issa Thaljieh is a Greek Orthodox religious leader at the Church of the Nativity. He said life is slowly getting better. He said the small groups coming to visit are a good sign.
Without visitors, he said, "Bethlehem is nothing."
I'm Dan Friedell.
Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by the Associated Press. Susan Shand was the editor.
Have you been to Bethlehem during Christmas? What do you remember about your visit? Tell us in the Comments Section and visit 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
encourage – v. to make (something) more appealing or more likely to happen
tourism – n. the activity of traveling to a place for pleasure
tile – n. a usually flat piece of hard clay, stone, or other material that is used for covering walls, floors, etc.