The most wonderful time of the year is shaping up to be the most bustling season for holiday tourism yet in Bethlehem, as the historic Middle Eastern city is experiencing the busiest Christmas season on record to date.
As of Dec. 10, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism reported that hotels in Jesus’ birthplace are almost fully booked for the holiday, Reuters reports. According to the outlet, hotel occupancy rates are expected to surpass 95 percent by the end of the month, as visitors from all over the world pour in during the one of the holiest times of the Christian calendar year.
“Tourism has recovered following a fall in knife and car-ramming attacks which helped push visitor numbers in the biblical city to a 10-year low in 2015,” Reuters reports. “Bethlehem store owners also said they were benefiting from a surge of visitors to Israel in its 70th anniversary year.”
After dipping in 2015 and 2016, tourism has seen a comeback in the past two years, officials say, and according to the Associated Press Bethlehem is expecting 1.2 million visitors this year.
“Coming to Israel has always been on my bucket list,” travel adviser Robyn Jackson of Phoenix, Arizona told Reuters of her motivation to visit. “Being in Bethlehem and all the places where Jesus walked is amazing.”
In May, the Trump administration officially opened the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, in a historic move cheered by Israelis but met with mass protests from Palestinians.
“I think excitement has been stirred because of the embassy move,” said Keith Jiles, 55, a pastor from Atlanta, Georgia, said. “People had been afraid in the past to come. But excitement has built. And you’re gonna see more tourism because of it,” he said.
As per the AP, a historic renovation of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity is lifting spirits for some in the biblical town ahead of Christmas, offering visitors a look at ancient mosaics and columns that have been restored to their original glory for the first time in 600 years.
One of Christianity's most sacred shrines, the church was built in the 4th century by Saint Helena over a cave where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth. What pilgrims mostly see today is the basilica built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who ruled from A.D. 527 to 565.
The $17 million renovation began in 2013.
But whether the city's efforts can stop the long-term outflow of Bethlehem's Christians remains to be seen. As elsewhere in the Arab world, the local Christian community has struggled for decades, escaping conflict and economic troubles in search of better opportunities abroad.
In the Holy Land, Israel's half-century-old occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and more than a decade of rule by the Islamic militant group Hamas in Gaza have significantly worsened the situation.
Fox News’ Brooke Singman, Judson Berger and the Associated Press contributed to this report.