BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- The West Bank city where Christians believe Jesus was born welcomed an unprecedented number of foreign guests on Christmas eve, Palestinian Authority officials said Friday.
PA minister of tourism Khaloud Deibis told Ma’an that this year's estimates showed that about 90,000 would arrive by the end of the season compared to 60,000 last year.
PA budget problems have been offset by the rise in tourism, she added.
"It's amazing. To be in the birthplace of Christ on Christmas, you can't get better than that," said Brady MacCarl, 22.
The Canadian, who works in neighboring Beit Sahour, also in the West Bank, admitted that it was "a bit weird" to be celebrating Christmas with no snow on the ground.
Unlike in years past, when the specter of unrest and violence kept visitors away from its hotels, instead staying inside Israel, Bethlehem hoteliers were expecting many tourists to stay over on Friday night.
The hotels union is working to increase occupancy by three times, deputy chief Elias Al-Arja said. Of the 56 hotels in the West Bank, 24 of them are in Bethlehem, he noted.
Bethlehem was to also host tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Israel, and several hundred from the tiny Christian community in Gaza who were able to secure rare Israeli entry permits for the holiday.
A group from Gaza was denied permission, PA officials said.
President Mahmoud Abbas congratulated Palestinian Christians and Christians around the world on the occasion, saying he hoped "peace will prevail in the Holy Land for years to come."
Abbas and other PA officials and foreign dignitaries were to attend midnight mass at the Nativity Church, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Crowds lined the square, most of them Palestinian Christians, but a few Muslim women sporting headscarves were also visible in the crowd.
Children, many clutching balloons and some dressed in Santa hats or full outfits, stood close to parents and jumped up and down at the sounds of drummers and bagpipers.
Charlene, an American from California who declined to give her last name, said it was a religious experience for her to be in Bethlehem for the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.
"It's a crazy experience and it's probably one that will only happen once in our lives," she told AFP.
The weather in Bethlehem was unseasonably warm, with clear blue skies and plenty of sun to warm tourists and Palestinians gathered in Manger Square to await the arrival of Latin Patriarch Fuad Tawwal in a traditional march.
Tawwal arrived in Manger Square at around 12:30 p.m. in a procession that included scout troupes from Christian towns and villages throughout the West Bank.
Palestinian security forces channeled visitors behind security barriers ahead of the arrival of the patriarch, the most senior Catholic bishop in the Middle East.
The day's events were to be capped by Tawwal's midnight mass, expected to include a message of hope for peace but also sound a sombre tone after the Oct. 31 massacre of worshippers in a Baghdad church.
In his pre-Christmas message, he offered solidarity to Iraqi Christians, who have been the target of repeated bloodshed, including the church attack that killed 44 worshippers and two priests.
He also lamented the failure of renewed direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but urged the faithful not to give up hope.
"We are running after peace, but it keeps evading us," Tawwal said this week.
"The world does not want to give us peace, but do not lose hope; we are working and praying for it to come, so we can all come out of this difficult situation," he told Palestinians in advance of the mass.AFP contributed to this report.