By Zainah El-Haroun
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - The trickle of tourists is sometimes scarcely enough to fill a manger, let alone an inn, but Bethlehem's Palestinians are hopeful that numbers will rise in the month before Christmas.
The traditional birthplace of Jesus was all but shuttered by the pandemic last year, ravaging the tourism-dependent economy and leading some hoteliers to consider selling up.
But this year Israel has eased curbs on foreign tourists in time for Christmas, although everyone remains wary of a winter coronavirus wave.
While grateful for the return of some foreign tourists and Christian Palestinians from the West Bank and Israel, it is a far cry from the 3.5 million visitors who came in winter 2019, just before the pandemic.
“Of course the numbers are very few, but as a start, as a beginning, I think it’s good,” Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maayah told Reuters. “Hopefully very soon these few hundreds will be a few thousand.”
The reduced numbers have at least improved the experience for those who are there.
One of just three wise tourists standing in an otherwise-deserted Manger Square on Nov. 17, Danish pilgrim Trina Dybkjaer said their timing seemed ideal.
“I came to see where Jesus was born," she said, looking up at the half-decorated Christmas tree outside the Church of the Nativity.
“I can almost feel the history of how it was back then. It hasn’t been, at least today, destroyed by a lot of tourists.”
Bethlehem's municipality scaled back the town's Christmas market last year and banned most spectators from the tree-lighting ceremony.
But Mayor Anton Salman said this year's celebration will proceed as normal on Dec. 4, with visitors asked to wear masks. He expected around 15,000 people, mostly Palestinians.
Across Bethlehem, souvenir-sellers and hoteliers say they are struggling to make a living.
“We have Christmas reservations from Britain, Colombia, the U.S., all over, we can't complain about that,” said Joey Canavati, manager of Nativity Street's Alexander Hotel.
“We just don't know what will happen next week, or next month - will there be another COVID wave? Will everything shut down again?”
(Zainah El-Haroun reported from Bethlehem; Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Giles Elgood)