Amid Middle East gloom, Christmas brings some cheer in Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - This Christmas, for once, Bethlehem really can boast again that there is no room at the inn, as relative calm in the Israeli-occupied West Bank brings pilgrims and tourists flocking to the town of Jesus’s birth.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

Elias Al-Arja of the Bethlehem hoteliers’ association said the troubles of the surrounding region had boosted numbers in the biblical Holy Land, and bookings were up on last year.

Tourism is a major source of revenue for the Palestinian economy - and provides livelihoods for about 5,000 families in Bethlehem, which has some 5,000 rooms in 46 hotels.

“Hopefully all will go well, and there’s full occupancy in all Bethlehem hotels on the 23rd, 24th and 25th of December,” Arja said.

Israeli-Palestinian violence has driven tourists away in the past, especially during the 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising when Bethlehem was a particularly lonely place.

While the security situation is more relaxed now, Israeli roadblocks and a six-metre (20-foot) Israeli-built concrete separation barrier snaking through the landscape are still part of the Bethlehem vista.

Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Ma’ayah said 2.3 million tourists have visited the Palestinian territories this year, slightly more than last.

The main attractions in Bethlehem are the 4th-century Church of the Nativity, built over a grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born, and the Christmas tree in Manger Square, where choirs sing carols during the holiday.

The church, on UNESCO’s list of endangered World Heritage sites, is currently undergoing its first comprehensive renovation since it was completed 1,700 years ago.

On Christmas Eve, the acting Latin patriarch of Jerusalem will lead an annual procession to Bethlehem and then celebrate Midnight Mass in the church.

Many of the pilgrims’ Holy Land itineraries include nearby Jerusalem and Jesus’s boyhood town of Nazareth in the Galilee, now the largest Arab city in Israel.

Checking into her hotel, Evana, a tourist from Poland, summed it up: “Very nice place, very historical - and we came to see everything: Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem.”

Bethlehem’s Christmas season lasts through the Eastern Orthodox celebration on Jan. 7 to Armenian Christmas on Jan. 18.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Kevin Liffey