JEWS DON’T BELIEVE IN JESUS BUT IN THE COMMERCE THE TRAIL BRINGS THEM…
NAZARETH, Israel – Strains of “Silent Night” stream from the tour bus speakers on what has become known as the Jesus circuit in Nazareth, northern Israel.
Locals here joke that the carols constitute a whole new category of music in the largely Palestinian city, but the bigger joke, they claim, is making money selling Americans their own Christmas music.
“There have always been Christians who come to the Holy Land. But in recent years they come in huge groups, in tour bus caravans, in the thousands!” said Ibrihim Mansouf, a local shop owner in Nazareth. “They want to buy anything, anything that was made in the Holy Land.”
Of the 3.5 million tourists that visit Israel each year, 2.4 million travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories for “Christian Tourism” according to the Israeli Tourism Ministry.
It’s a billion-dollar industry – one that both Israeli and Palestinian businesses have just begun to capitalize on.
“The Holy Land is becoming the heart of life for people of faith across the entire world. Christmas is a tradition of this land, and all the inhabitants can enjoy the atmosphere and message of peace that the season brings,” said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the custodian of the Holy Land, who oversees Israel and neighboring countries on behalf of the Franciscan Order.
In recent years, there has been a boom in sites and services that mix modern-day tourism with biblical stories. In the north, tourists can visit the “Nazareth Village” a re-creation of life in the time of Christ, complete with wandering shepherds and carpenters who interact with guests.
The “Jesus trail” begins just outside the city, and allows the hardy to walk – quite literally – in the footsteps of Jesus. It’s 40 miles long and takes three to five days to cover. Across the north of Israel, Maronite Christian villages offer one-week Aramaic courses based on readings from the New Testament, as well as walks along the hills where Jesus is said to have given the sermon on the Mount.
All of this before tourists even get to Jerusalem or Bethlehem.
“Tourism is a bridge to peace and dialogue among cultures,” Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov told reporters recently. In recent years, his office has worked to establish access to tour sites in Israel, as well as in the Palestinian territories, he said.
“If I can bring in three more tourists, and two of them visit the Palestinian areas, they will create employment there. This is a win-win situation for Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” said the Russian-born Misezhnikov.
Not everyone feels that Israel’s new push to cater to Christian tourists benefits both sides equally.
Victor Batarseh, mayor of Bethlehem, recently lashed out as Israeli Tourism officials for trying to “cash in” on tourists visiting the region.
“Israel takes 95 percent of the benefits (of tourism to Bethlehem),” he said. “Israel uses the name of Bethlehem, since religious tourists go to two places, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.”
He argued that years of Israel’s military occupation and the separation barrier that winds its way around the city have made it difficult for businessmen in Bethlehem to make ends meet – let along build the type of infrastructure the tens of thousands of tourists would need.
This year, every single hotel room in Bethlehem has been booked – with tens of thousands of tourists spilling out in neighboring Jerusalem for accommodation.
“We don’t have enough hotel rooms to deal with these numbers. That’s why most of these pilgrims sleep over in Israel. That’s why they get most of the profits,” Batarseh said. There are five new hotels currently under development in Bethlehem, but Batarseh said that 10,000 to 15,000 additional rooms would need to be built to house the tourists the city sees in one Christmas season.
Misezhnikov said Batarseh is unjustly heaping guilt onto Israel. He pointed out that Israel has endorsed several international conferences in Bethlehem to plan and fundraise for future business projects in the city.
“I would support any plan that would build world-class and innovative tourism accommodations. I have been pushing for this whether it happens in the Palestinian areas or Jewish ones,” Misezhnikov said.
Sarah Anderson, a 46-year-old teacher from Chicago, visited Bethlehem and Jerusalem for the first time this week.
“There is a big wall between them, and I was expecting two different worlds,” she said. “But I felt the holiness of each place was equal and special and had nothing to do with politics.
A billion Christians around the world revere the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (pictured) in the Old City as Jesus’s burial place, but a recently aired film on the Discovery Channel casts some doubt on that belief. Photo: Berthold Werner.
Christian tourists to Bethlehem are expected to reach a record 2 million in 2013, up sharply from the 1.18 million recorded in 2012, the Israeli Tourism Ministry said on Monday. At end-October, according to Tourism Ministry statistics, 1.85 million tourists had passed from Jerusalem through Rachel’s Crossing to visit Bethlehem. A total 75,000 tourists are expected to be in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem over Christmas, with 25,000 being considered Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. The Ministry said, over the past two years, Israel has invested NIS 86 million ($24 million) in strengthening the transport infrastructure and other assets used by Christians to tour Israel’s religious sites. “The Tourism Ministry under my leadership will continue to invest significantly in the preservation and renovation of Christian holy sites,” Tourism Minister Dr. Uzi Landau said in a statement. “Since its establishment, the State of Israel has attached great importance to the values of freedom of religion and worship and works tirelessly to facilitate religious practice for people of all religions in freedom and mutual respect. We will do all we can to ensure that every Christian can visit the holy sites. We invite the faithful to visit the Holy Land and experience a powerful religious and spiritual pilgrimage in Jerusalem, the Galilee and beyond.”
The sites that have been improved because of Israeli investment include, among others, the baptism site at Qasr el Yahud near the Dead Sea, Mount Zion and Ein Karem in Jerusalem and the Gospel Trail in the Galilee. Other projects include, the boardwalk from Tiberias to Capernaum, Korazim and Mount Precipice. Future infrastructure projects at Christian sites include, among others, Tel Megiddo , the Old City of Jerusalem, Sussita and other sites in the Tiberias and Galilee region. Representatives in the Tourism Ministry are anticipating continued collaboration with the Catholic Church for the visit of Pope Francis, who is expected to tour the Holy Land in the first half of 2014. The Tourism Ministry invested over NIS 3.5 million in infrastructure and marketing the recent International Day of Faith celebrations held at Mount Precipice in Nazareth, in November, led by the Latin Patriarch and attended by about 7,000 Catholic faithful from the region and overseas. Targeted marketing campaigns take place around the world to Christian communities, encouraging tourism to the Holy Land. The ministry runs dedicated websites and Facebook pages for the Catholic and Evangelical communities.
During 2012, Israel’s record year for incoming tourism, 2.88 million tourists, staying more than one night, visited Israel. About 56% of all incoming tourists in 2012 were Christian. Half were Catholic (808,000), and nearly 30% of all incoming tourists defined themselves as pilgrims. The Ministry said 90% of all Christian tourists visit Jerusalem. About two-thirds of all Christian tourists in 2012 visited the Dead Sea area (68%); Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee (62%), Bethlehem (60%) and just over half visited Nazareth (56%) and Capernaum (55%). The most visited sites by Christian tourists include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: 84%; Via Dolorosa: 82%; Western Wall: 82%; Mount of Olives: 82%; Jewish Quarter: 79%; Church of the Annunciation: 61%; Capernaum: 55% and the Yardenit baptism site: 46%. Some other interesting characteristics of Christian tourism, based on the Tourism Ministry Inbound Tourism Survey, include their average length of stay: 7.7 nights ; Average expenditure: $1483; Average expenditure per day: $187 per day; 83% visit within the framework of an organized tour; 80% of all Christian tourists are first-time visitors; 20% of pilgrims are repeat visitors, with about 32% of them having visited within the last two years.
The major source countries for Christian tourism are Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Poland, Mexico (mainly Catholics); Russia and Romania (mainly Orthodox); Nigeria (Catholics and Protestants). During the holiday, the Ministry of Tourism will offer free transportation, helping pilgrims traveling between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, with buses leaving from the Mar Elias Monastery to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and back again. The buses will operate non-stop from December 24th at noon through noon of Christmas day. Representatives from the Ministry of Tourism will be welcoming tourists and pilgrims at Rachel’s Crossing with a gift bag containing a set of coasters depicting scenes of Israel and chocolate in the spirit of the holiday. The Ministry said that the schedule for this year opens on December 11, in Nazareth, with the lighting of the Christmas tree and the traditional Christmas market, selling Christmas decorations and gifts, through December 15. On December 22, Tourism Minister Landau will host the traditional reception for Church leaders and representatives in Nazareth, at the Golden Crown Hotel Nazareth. The reception, which will include the participation of the Director-General of the Tourism Ministry Amir Halevi and the new Mayor of Nazareth Ali Salam, will include an artistic program with singer Maria Jubran. On December 23, the Minister will host the traditional pre-Christmas reception for leaders of the Christian communities and churches in Israel at the Shimshon Center, Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem. Halevi will also participate in the reception alongside the Christian leaders, and representatives of the Church, government and private bodies involved in promoting Christian tourism to the Holy Land. The minister will send season’s greetings for Christmas to the Christian communities and invite the faithful around the world to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On December 24, the traditional parade of thousands of local youth, together with the leaders of the Christian communities, will pass through Nazareth and end at the plaza in front of the Basilica with a firework display, sponsored by the Tourism Ministry, to announce the opening of the festive Christmas celebrations, followed by Christmas Mass celebrated in the Basilica of the Annunciation