The West Bank town of Bethlehem is busy getting ready for Christmas.
As bright lights and other holiday decorations go up in Manger Square, Bethlehem is preparing for its best Christmas in 20 years, the town’s mayor said.
Five new hotels are being built and some existing hotels are expanding. The town has even extended the opening hours of the Church of the Nativity, the place where many Christians believe Jesus Christ was born.
But even after three years of relative peace, many people are still worried. Bethlehem is just a short drive from Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The local economy depends on the money spent by visitors. Whenever there is unrest anywhere in the Middle East, tourists stop coming and that can lead to a financial disaster.
Sitting in his office overlooking the newly lit Christmas tree in Manger Square, Mayor Anton Salman said Bethlehem may get more than the 1.5 million visitors it received last year.
“Since three years (ago), things are going up. This year is better than 2018 and 2018 was better than 2017 and it is a continuous increase,” Salman told the Reuters news agency.
For years, the biggest problem was the small front door leading to the Church of the Nativity. Visitors must bend over and crouch to enter. The door was once large, but reduced in size hundreds of years ago by Christian Crusaders. During Ottoman Turkish rule, the door was made even smaller to prevent people driving vehicles from entering the church.
For the first time this year, officials extended the building’s opening hours from sunset to 8 at night, Salman said. In 2020, officials plan to enlarge the town’s bus station and to work on ways to limit traffic on the narrow road leading to Manger Square.
The town will even consider asking tourist groups to register before arriving.
“If the number will be high and the church can’t receive all of them we need to look for other plans that can be helpful,” he said.
Memories of Christmas past
Townspeople are excited about a new attraction – a piece of wood said to be from the manger used by the baby Jesus. The wooden relic arrived back in Bethlehem last week from Rome.
But the town is also worried. Bethlehem enjoyed a strong economy until the Palestinian rebellion against Israeli rule in 2000. As the violence between Israelis and Palestinians worsened, visitors stopped coming.
Now, Israel’s high wall rises up over the northern entrance to Bethlehem, and separates it from Jerusalem.
Palestinians call Israel’s barrier an attempt to take their land. Israel says the wall has reduced attacks on its citizens.
Joey Canavati directs the Alexander Hotel in Bethlehem. He said his family had little hope for the town during the past 10 years, but now it expects a lot of visitors through 2021. The hotel is expanding from 58 to 110 rooms.
“Business has been booming, we have never seen it like this ever before,” he said. “But, it’s always about stability.”
I’m Susan Shand.
The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
Christmas – n. a Christian holiday that is celebrated on December 25 in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ or the period of time that comes before and after this holiday
decoration – n. something that is added to something else to make it more attractive
crouch – v. to lower your body to the ground by bending your legs
Crusader – n. a person who fought in military operations led by Christian powers in Europe’s Middle Ages to capture the Holy Land from Muslims
attraction – n. an object that appears to the desires or tastes of someone
manger – n. an open box in which food for farm animals is placed
booming – adj. doing financially well
stability – n. the quality or state of something that is not easily changed or likely to change