BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Residents lit up a giant Christmas tree outside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity on Saturday, hoping that a new coronavirus variant doesn't ruin another holiday season in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
The Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank was all but closed last Christmas, losing its peak tourist season to the pandemic.
This December has seen Israel shut out foreign travellers for 14 days to try to prevent the Omicron variant taking hold, and the hope is that the ban will end as scheduled, in time for Christmas travel. In its last pre-pandemic winter, in 2019/20, Bethlehem hosted 3.5 million visitors.
The giant tree, topped with a bright red star, was lit up with hundreds of coloured lights as red, white and green fireworks illuminated the night sky.
Mayor Anton Salman said the travel ban had prevented several foreign delegations attending.
Nonetheless, the audience in Manger Square in front of the church was far bigger than last year, when coronavirus restrictions kept even local spectators away.
"It is very joyful, a very nice evening. The air is full of hope, full of joy, full of expectation," said Maria, a tourist from Finland who did not provide her full name.
(Reporting by Mohammed Abu Ganeyeh and Yosri al-Jamal in Bethlehem and Roleen Tafakji in Jerusalem; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Kevin Liffey)