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No Christmas tourists this year in Bethlehem, but there's hope for 2021

A Palestinian girl looks at a Santa Claus display Tuesday, Christmas Eve, in Bethlehem, West Bank. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the biblical city of Jesus' birth in early March and led to closed borders and no tourists for nine months. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI
A Palestinian girl looks at a Santa Claus display Tuesday, Christmas Eve, in Bethlehem, West Bank. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the biblical city of Jesus' birth in early March and led to closed borders and no tourists for nine months. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 24 (UPI) -- In Bethlehem, long a traditional epicenter for annual Christmas celebrations, Mayor Anton Salman hasn't canceled all events but the COVID-19 pandemic has limited their size and scope.

Christmas Eve Mass, considered the year's most significant event at the town's Church of Nativity, will be closed to the public on Tuesday.

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The large Christmas tree in Manger Square has been lit with its gleaming red star on top, but fewer people will see it this year -- as COVID-19 has hindered Bethlehem's tourism economy by shuttering hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

The little town in the occupied West Bank remains on lockdown due to high rates of COVID-19 transmission between cities. People there are required to stay indoors from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and all day on Fridays and Saturdays, which has cut family gatherings and other celebrations.

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"It's a sad Christmas, but we know that when Jesus was born the angels said: 'Do not be afraid,'" Father Issa Thaljieh of the Church of Nativity said.

"We know that Jesus Christ was born for us, to give us salvation, and this is how to be happy -- to have this inner peace and joy."

A year ago, Bethlehem saw record tourism and tens of thousands visited for Christmas. Before the pandemic arrived, there were hopes that 2020 could be even better.

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"The occupancy rate was over 90%. Everyone was investing in this sector," Angel Hotel General Manager Mariana al-Arja said.

"Businessmen started building new hotels. I built 22 new, luxurious rooms here. Now, it's dead. It's very sad to see."

The impact of the health crisis forced al-Arja to lay off her employees and close the hotel.

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"This is where Jesus was born," she added. "I'm sure tourists are going to come back to Bethlehem but it needs time ... We're waiting for the whole world to restart."

"My greatest hope is to end the pandemic," said Michele Burke Bowe, president at Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation.

"My hope is for pilgrims to return to Bethlehem, to see the joy and wonder of the birth of our savior. To experience the hospitality of the people of Bethlehem, who in some way are all related to those original shepherds who saw the angels and climbed the hill to worship the Christ child."

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