WWithout the right staff and jet-lagged guests, the sheer immensity of the 240-room hotel lobby is clear. Dozens of sofas have been stored and the rugs are covered with plastic sheeting to protect them from dust. The chandeliers hang solitary and dull in the dim light. Time zone clocks tick behind an empty reception desk.
“We can’t go on like this,” says Service Director Khader Hihi, walking the gleaming tile floors. “All of Bethlehem depends on tourism.”
Since March, the Manger Square Hotel, which offers four-star accommodations popular with Christian pilgrims, has been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Most of the other large hotels nearby are empty.
Like several governments, Israel, which controls international entrances to the occupied Palestinian territories, has blocked entry to non-residents, meaning the tourism industry has been frozen.
With the arrival of Christmas, which is normally the busiest time of the year in Bethlehem, the city anticipates a sober affair, its first significantly empty vacation period since the intense violence two decades ago. Even during the second intifada, some tourists came.
“We used to have 80 employees, which increases to 110 at Christmas,” Hihi said, and she moved into a room on the ninth floor, with the mattresses naked, the pillows and the television wrapped in plastic.
Now, only four employees come in daily to make sure the building’s essential systems are working.
A hotel costs money, even when it’s closed, says Hihi. You have to turn on the air conditioner to prevent it from stalling. The fire system must also be kept on. Add in salaries and maintenance for permanent staff, and the hotel’s monthly cost is around $ 30,000, he estimates.
“Normally, we make about $ 25,000 a day,” he said, adding that between 450 and 500 guests visit during the holiday period.
There is also a broader impact on the community. “We usually buy 800 eggs a day from farms, plus vegetables and bread from bakeries.” Some smaller hotels, depending on local visitors, have stayed open, but they aren’t making much money.
“Everyone is upset. No one knows what will happen, ”Hihi said.
Next to the hotel, the King Solomon Bazaar souvenir shop is open, but not for tourists. “I come to ventilate the store and clean it,” said 25-year-old owner Adnan al-Qurna.
Christmas in the city responsible for its existence is not canceled in any way. However, it will be significantly reduced and will not include thousands of people as it normally does.
The Palestinian Health Ministry recommended strict limits on celebrations, including the traditional tree-lighting ceremony in Manger Square, which was limited to 50 people. Restaurants must close at 9:00 p.m. during the Christmas season.
Other events, such as the recently created Bethlehem Cultural Festival, were held in digital format, with recorded performances, short films and debates broadcast live.
The occupied West Bank is experiencing a record increase in coronavirus cases, with daily infections exceeding 1,000 in the territory of around 2.7 million Palestinians and around 400,000 Israeli settlers.
A Christian aid charity, Friends of the Holy Land, described the situation as a disaster for the city, estimating that around 80% of its residents relied on tourism.
“No one could have predicted the 2020 pandemic, or that this total collapse in tourism would last that long,” said the charity’s chief executive, Brendan Metcalfe.
The charity launched a Christmas appeal to send money for schools and medical expenses.
“Never before have we had to help so many people through unemployment. The Bethlehem churches that have also helped so far are now running out of funds and there is nothing to come from the Palestinian Authority, ”he said. “There is no licensing plan or other form of safety net, so people really need the help we can provide.”
Inside the Church of the Nativity, one of the most revered Christian sites in the world, the hordes of tourists are gone. Usually lines of people, their smartphones blinking, descend steep stairs that lead to the grotto that traditionally marks the birthplace of Jesus. Now the staircase, along with the rest of the church, is almost empty.
“Normally 1,100 people will come to the Christmas services,” Father Emad Kamil said. “This year, we have not yet decided on a figure.”
The pandemic had been a lesson in arrogance, he said. “No matter what we may think, we are weak and fragile.”
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