For centuries Christians have flocked to holy sites in what is now modern-day Israel to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Popular spots include Nazareth, the birthplace of Jesus, which is populated predominantly by Arab Israeli citizens and is known as “the Arab capital of Israel”; the Jordan River, which today caters both for baptismal candidates and thrill-seeking water sports enthusiasts; the Sea of Galilee, where tourists can sail on the Jesus Boat, a wooden replica of the boat that archaeologists believe Jesus may have sailed in; and, of course, the Via Dolorosa which snakes its way through the alleys of the Old City in Jerusalem and traces Jesus’s final steps on his way to crucifixion.
Intermittently, reports of violence and tension between Israelis and Palestinians have kept even the most devout Christians at bay. Yet recently, despite the region’s persistent international reputation as a danger zone, faith-based tourism in Israel, as well as within the Palestinian territories, has been soaring.
Covering an area that is roughly a 12th of the size of Britain, Israel is becoming a hot destination for Christians of all denominations. According to Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, more than two-thirds of the 3.45 million visitors to the country in 2010, the record year for incoming tourism, were Christians. More than half of these were Catholic.
With Christian visitors now outnumbering both Jews and sun worshipers, Israel is diversifying its long-dominant image as either a primarily Jewish Holy Land or a Mediterranean sea, sand andsun destination. Turning Christian-based travel into a focus for its marketing activities, the Ministry of Tourism has launched a string of initiatives that are intended to strengthen the branding of Israel as the Holy Land, with Jerusalem at its centre.
For instance, the Gospel Trail, a 35-mile walking, cycling, driving and sailing route is officially opening this month. Starting on Mount Precipice in Nazareth, where Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a large public Mass in 2009, and ending in Capernaum, the centre of Jesus’s Galilean Ministry, the Gospel Trail takes in the stunning views of the Upper Galilee, including the lush Jazreel Valley, the site of Armageddon. The unveiling of the Gospel Trail came just months after the launch of another route which traces the footsteps of Virgin Mary. Here, visits at the last stop, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, are facilitated with the help of local Palestinian tourism personnel.
During a pre-opening Gospel Trail hike for journalists and Catholic seminarians from Domus Galilaeae, Rafael Ben-Hur, senior deputy director general of the Tourism Ministry, said: “Israel is the only place where the Bible can be used as a tour guide.” He added that an aim of Israel’s new faith-based tourism drive is to communicate to Christians around the world that the Jews are guarding the Holy Land and its Christian sites. Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov has also promised that “in the coming year, we will place special emphasis on increasing cooperation with leading opinion formers and community leaders in the Christian world”. Through such efforts, Israel is hoping to turn Christian pilgrims into ambassadors for tourism to Israel in their home countries.
Amir Moran, project manager of the Gospel Trail, said that during the five years of planning the route he had not encountered any objections from locals. On the contrary, he suggested, communities along the trail are looking forward to benefitting from the expected boost in tourism. “An advantage of the trail is that it links communities on a chain along 35 miles, passing Jewish and Arab areas,” he said. “On an economic level, the chain becomes stronger.”
Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Israel, led the pre-launch hike down Mount Precipice, accompanied by seminarians playing guitar and singing hymns, before leading Mass on a “Jesus Boat”. Bishop Marcuzzo believes that initiatives such as the Gospel Trail will encourage young Christians from around the world to undertake pilgrimages to the Holy Land, as the combination of “direct contact with nature and local communities” is particularly attractive to young people.
According to the Ministry of Tourism in 2010 nearly 40 per cent of all incoming tourists in Israel defined themselves as pilgrims. Most visit Bethlehem¸ the Western Wall and Christian sites in Jerusalem such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Via Dolorosa, the Mount of Olives and Capernaum. Bishop Marcuzzo pointed out that in addition to traditional pilgrimages, which usually involve visits to churches and other holy sites and a stay in a local hotel, “The Gospel Trail allows pilgrims to rediscover the places where Jesus spoke, walked and ate. They get to see the flora and fauna, the trees, stone and land that he and the apostles were surrounded by.”
Beyond the Gospel Trail, tourism officials are investing heavily in marketing towards Christian communities in order to reach its target of four million tourists in 2011. During this year’s Easter Holy Week alone some 100,000 tourists came to Israel. A highlight was the annual Holy Fire Ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The narrow alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City filled up with Orthodox Christians who passed the holy fire between them, seemingly unbothered by the candlewax dripping down their hands. Those who did not make it into the overcrowded church itself could follow the proceedings on four screens erected in the Old City.
But Catholics make up the largest part of Christian tourists in Israel. In 2010 the number of Catholic tourists rose by 26 per cent. The biggest proportion was from Poland, followed by Spain, Italy and Germany. Out of those tourists in Israel who define themselves as pilgrims, more than half are Catholics. A dedicated website (www.holyland-pilgrimage.org) outlines a range of Catholic tourist itineraries.
The hope, on Israel’s part, is not only to boost tourism through these initiatives, but also to encourage support of Israel at a time of growing international hostility.