BETHLEHEM, West Bank — When Christy Zeidan, office manager of the Three Arches 2 souvenir shop, put the key in the door lock for the first time in nearly 20 months, she got goose bumps on her arms.
“It was very emotional. It was like breathing again, but I wanted to cry when I saw everything covered in dust,” said Zeidan, who together with shop owner Lillian Canawati has been preparing the shop in anticipation of the return of tourists and pilgrims after months of COVID-19 restrictions. “For two years there have been no tourists, no life in Bethlehem. We are happy and optimistic and are waiting for them. We are hoping for more groups in December and November.”
On Nov. 1, Israel opened its borders to tourists who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or can show proof of recovery within the past six months; this means tourists will also be able to reach Bethlehem. But tourists faced some hurdles with documents that need to be filled out and other travel requirements as the tourism industry tried to get back into gear.
It will take some time until things get back to semi-normal, said Canawati, and though she saw some tourists groups come through Bethlehem, shoppers have yet to come into the store, which was usually packed before the pandemic.
Unopened boxes of merchandise were stacked inside the front door next to the front counter, where a box of face masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer were neatly lined up Nov. 3. Canawati said regulations would be followed, including limiting the number of tourists coming in the store and the wearing of face masks.
“We will be happy to see tourists here again, so we can have our lives again,” she said. But even when the tourists do return, she said, there is a sense that things have changed irreversibly.
“We don’t feel safe; we know (how much we depend) on tourists, because if there are no tourists, no one is willing to help us. We feel alone here, only with God. There is no safety net,” Canawati said.
While Israel was able to provide unemployment benefits and grants to Israeli tourism professionals as with other people who lost their jobs because of COVID-19, the Palestinian Authority did not have the economic tools to offer financial assistance to Palestinian workers.
A joint report issued Sept. 27 by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities estimated pandemic-related losses for the Bethlehem tourism sector at over $1 billion.
Some foreign volunteers and students who have been in the region are taking advantage of the time to be able to visit holy sites without the normal crowds.
Ilaria Patania, 39, an Italian archaeologist who has been conducting research at Israel’s University of Haifa, and Federico Salmoiraghi, 45, an Italian mathematician doing research at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, were the lone visitors to the Church of the Nativity at midday Nov. 3. Although they were living in Israel, they had been unable to visit Bethlehem because of the border closings due to COVID-19, said Patania.
“All the people here are very excited to see us. You can feel there are preparations for something to start, though many of the shops and hotels are still closed,” she said.
“It is a much more prayerful atmosphere,” observed Jean Thouzeau, 24, who arrived from France in October to volunteer with the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Jerusalem. “I think it is a great privilege to be able to be here without so many people here.”
Franciscan Father Melvyn Gomez was at the Milk Grotto, eager to begin welcoming guests. He knew many couples were eager to be able to get packets of the special “milk powder” from the grotto, which many people believe has helped them conceive.
Gomez said several Masses had been held already at the grotto by a few Hispanic groups from the United States.
“It is good because we are seeing people. People here are desperate for their livelihood,” he said. “Finally, the church is open for people. We pray and hope it will continue and there will be an influx of visitors.”