Empty Streets and Closed Shops: Bethlehem's Tourism is Struggling to Survive The Pandemic
Before COVID-19 reached the Palestinian Territories in March 2020, the city known as the birthplace of Jesus attracted millions of tourists annually. Now, however, a local merchant says the situation is dire, as visitors are prevented from coming.
Antuan Issa, a Palestinian merchant of antiques and a director of the Angel hotel, located in Bethlehem, remembers well the buzz of the Christmas season some two years ago.
"Back then, the shops were crowded, the hotels were packed, and in good times I was able to earn $10,000 a month. Life was stable and good, and people like me, who relied on tourism, were considered the richest in the Palestinian territories."
World Turned Upside Down
Then, everything turned upside down. In March 2020, the Palestinian territories registered their first cases of COVID-19, and the local authorities implemented a number of restrictive measures to curb its spread.
They banned mass gatherings, and ordered private businesses, hotels, schools and other public institutions to close their doors. They have also prevented tourists from coming in, and imposed full lockdowns for a long period of time.
In winter 2019, Bethlehem registered 3.5 million tourists, who flocked to the city's renown Church of Nativity, which according to Christian tradition was built on the site of the stable where Mary gave birth to Christ. Today, the streets are empty, the shops are closed, and the Palestinians, who relied on tourism, are struggling to make ends meet
"I am barely making $600 a month and I am struggling to support my family of four," complained Issa.
However, he is not alone. In the Gaza Strip the unemployment rate jumped to 49 percent by the end of 2020. In the West Bank, where Issa lives and works, the pandemic has caused wages to decline by 50 percent or more in nearly 40 percent of Palestinian households. The proportion of people living in poverty rose from 14 percent to 30 percent
Lack of Compensation
Unlike in neighbouring Israel, where business owners were compensated for the losses they suffered during the pandemic, in the Palestinian territories the entrepreneurs were left on their own.
Even before the outbreak of the virus, the Palestinian territories lacked any suitable social assistance plan and the eruption of the crisis hasn't changed the situation.
Issa is still frustrated with the fact that he, like tens of thousands of others, has been left without any government support.
"I am blaming the government and its unreasonable decisions, strict measures and the inability to find proper solutions. They were the ones, who imposed a closure on us, they were the reason that slashed our income, so they should be the one to compensate us for the financial losses we incurred," reasoned the merchant.
The problem is that nobody seems to be listening, and the prime reason for this is a lack of resources.
The Palestinian Authority has relied on annual injections of foreign aid for many years. It has been flowing from the United States, a number of European countries and several more prosperous Arab nations. Over the past several years, however, the situation has changed, with several donors trimming or cutting aid
In 2018, for example, it was the US that ended its funding for the UN Palestinian refugee body, UNRWA
Similar measures have also been taken by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The former because of its frustration with the Palestinian leadership's wastefulness and alleged corruption. The latter because of its normalisation agreement with Israel, the Abraham Accords, which was signed in September 2020
But for Issa, who is struggling to put food on the table, the lack of international donations cannot be the reason, why the government fails to compensate its citizens.
"I am not satisfied with the progress made," he complains. "My family has been suffering from a deep economic crisis for two years now and we do not have any other source of income. We deserve financial support and we demand that the government introduces a better policy of handling the pandemic," he added.
For now, however, there is no other plan.
Recently, it was reported that the Palestinian territories have registered their first three cases of the Omicron strain, a new COVID-19 variant believed to be much more contagious than the original virus
Local authorities are already scratching their heads over ways to tackle the new challenge, but chances that the policy of lockdowns and closures will change is highly unlikely. And this means that tourists will still stay at bay.