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12/22/2021 Palestine (International Christian Concern) – Bethlehem’s residents still employed in the tourism sector are in despair after surges in the Omicron COVID-19 variant prompted Israel to stop all foreign travel into the country. The birthplace of Jesus normally is a joyous and bustling town during the Christmas season, hosting some 1.16 million foreign tourists in 2013, the last year that statistics were available from the Palestinian Authority. The past two years have now crippled the tourism sector of Bethlehem and its surrounding areas as foreign Christians are not able to visit and celebrate Jesus’ birth.

Employees and owners of hotels and other tourist sites cleaned and prepared for an influx of tourists that now will not be coming this year. They expected about 70% capacity, hopes which have been dashed by the latest restrictions. Some local tourists are still expected to visit Bethlehem, though not in the throngs previously hoped for. One Armenian shop owner in Bethlehem noted that since March 2020 he only sold $23 USD worth of ceramics, a sum that used to be considered pocket change to him to cover his $27 worth of cigarettes per day.

Israeli hotels and the tourism sector have received stipends from the Israeli government, but those owned in Palestine have received nothing, only a one-time stipend of $224 USD. Christians in the tourism sector of Palestine have been hard hit by the pandemic and received little support.

Years ago, thousands of Christians visited Bethlehem during the Christmas season, providing encouragement to the local minority Christian population. The Christian population has notably fallen over the recent decades. Bethlehem’s Christians live under constant constraints of checkpoints, travel restrictions, high unemployment rates, and weak infrastructure.

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