Bittersweet Christmas in Bethlehem, as tourism falls

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The most striking element of change in Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem this year is the low turnout and heavy cancellations, as well as the rain that forced the choir to play inside the Peace Center’s halls instead of the Manger Square, leading to the Church of Nativity.

“The only change in this year’s celebration came due to the weather, ” said Anton Salman, the mayor of Bethlehem, who walked all morning on Sunday between bagpipe bands and scouts to ensure the ceremony went on smoothly.

In between his telephone calls and the loud bagpipe bands, he told reporters “there were lots of cancellations this year, which reached nearly 50 percent according to primary data” collected by the municipality.

Other local officials said that since the Trump declaration recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Dec. 6, the tourists busses coming into Bethlehem daily went down from 50 busses per day to just 20.

The three major nights around Christmas that are usually fully booked every year, can be clearly seen as half empty.

Jumana Anis, 43, with family and friends from Jerusalem to Bethlehem for the Christmas hype, said she was “surprised that this year the Manger Square looks empty.”

“It’s not like every year, where there was barely space between the crowds,” she said.

Anis described the atmosphere this year as “weak” and hoped for a better year in 2018, citing the political and economic situation after the Trump declaration over Jerusalem.

“I can’t understand why Trump would take such a step. Jerusalem is ours since ancient history and will forever be Palestinian,” she said, wondering “how can anybody just come to you and change your own capital and your own city?!”

The owner of a falafel shop that was opened in the Manger Square since 1948, Saliba Salameh, said that “this month all together has not been so well,” citing the general political atmosphere and the added economic burden of the normal people.
Hoping for a better new year, he explained that December is usually the season for work every year, specifically around Christmas. However, “there is much less work this year, I would say, by 50 percent.”

A 50 percent drop in tourism for the local Palestinian economy is a great deal.

The tension in the air following the Trump declaration was seen breaking out into dispersed clashes between Palestinian youth and Israeli forces throughout the West Bank, which negatively impacted the economy.

Many here wish for a better new year, but are generally not so optimistic.

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