A leading charity has warned that Bethlehem is set to fall on hard times this Christmas as it goes without the regular explosion of seasonal tourism due to Covid-19. Ecumenical charity Friends of the Holy Land, which supports Christian families in the region, says that "far from there being no room at the inn, coronavirus has devastated livelihoods as bustling pilgrim hotspots are abandoned".
Bethlehem usually welcomes around one million tourists and pilgrims to the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square. However, as Friends of the Holy Land points out, "this year, thanks to Covid-19, there are zero".
Photo: Christmas then and now. Credit: Christian Media Centre
"It's a disaster for the people who live there - a massive 80% of them rely on tourism for their income and have now been without any income since March," the charity noted. "Many are Christian families."
CEO Brendan Metcalfe said that, due to the consistent number of pilgrims every year, for many in Bethlehem, the tourism business "seemed like a stable source of income".
"Nobody could have predicted the 2020 pandemic, or that this total collapse of tourism would last so long," he added. "The whole of the Holy Land is now suffering from a lack of visitors that is set to continue deep into 2021.”
In response to the unforeseeable and sudden need, the charity is launching an emergency Christmas appeal "to help support people who are turning to it out of desperation".
CEO of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Sami El-Yousef, said that without additional help, things will only continue to deteriorate for residents across the region:
“It is certainly expected that the humanitarian situation will get much worse soon. Even on our institutional level, payment of tuition fees at our Palestinian Authority (PA) schools has hit an historical low since the beginning of the new school year, standing at just 11% collection.
"Within two to three months, we may not have enough money to pay the salaries of our 1,350 employees in schools across the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.”
Metcalfe added that his charity has "never had to support so many people through unemployment before".
"Bethlehem churches who have also helped so far, are now running out of funds, and there is nothing forthcoming from the Palestinian Authority. There is no furlough scheme or other form of safety net, so people really need the aid we can give.
“Our supporters in the UK have done an amazing job this year. But this tourism shutdown is lasting longer than anybody anticipated. We’ve launched a Christmas
appeal to raise further funds to support as many of the families coming to us as we possibly can.
“We want to supply more emergency food and pay off urgent medical or utility bills that are plunging vulnerable families into debt. We think Bethlehem, of all places, should be able to enjoy Christmas.”