Now tourists can follow 'Jesus Trail'
With tourism on the rise, specially-tailored packages offer Christians an innovative way to walk in Christ's footsteps across the Holy Land.
A record 300,000 tourists visited Israel in May 2008, the Tourism Ministry boasted, a 5% jump from the previous record – 292,000 visitors in April 2000. With economists predicting the numbers will only rise, private initiatives keen on tapping into newfound opportunities keep sprouting.
Maoz Inon and David Landis are two such entrepreneurs, aiming at proving Christian tourists with a unique Holy Land experience. Their project is called "The Jesus Trail" – a route that winds along the various locations Christ visited in the Galilee. The path starts in Nazareth and includes places like Sepphoris and Cana, and ending in Capernaum. The path then back goes through the Jordan River and Mount Tabor.
Nazareth could have been top destination
"Even without the sentimental value of the scriptures, the path itself is historically significant, one of the most unique," says Inon. "Pilgrims walked to Santiago de Compostela in Spain as early as the 9th century, following the way of St. James. But during the 1980's the number of pilgrims dropped to just a few hundred. Following an initiative by the Spanish government to rehabilitate the site, today the Way of St. James has 100,000 visitors.
And we have the genuine article. "The Israeli landscape is littered with remnants of the life of the founder of Christianity. Nazerath alone, where Jesus had spent the first few years of his life, could have become a top Christian tourist destination".
When Inon opened the Fauzi Azar Inn, there was a commotion in the Muslim quarter of Nazareth. Today, the market merchants direct backpackers passing through the area. Inon has, with the help of local investors, opened another guest house named "Katuf Guest House".
Inon met Dave Landis, a member of the Mennonite church, through the Internet. Landis, who spent three years walking famous religious paths, was looking for information about "The Israel Trail" and instead found a blog that Inon and his wife had written. Ever since they have been promoting the Jesus Trail.
"I'm not selling, I'm practically giving this idea away", says Inon. "Right now we're like the plankton, soon the big fish will come – travel agencies and airlines, and then we can translate this idea into money. And maybe the Tourism Ministry will join in as well'.
So far only a few dozens walked in Jesus' footsteps, among them a group of American students. Inon and Landis have uploaded a detailed map and description to trail's website. "We have been in contact with locals who are living near the trail, so that we could secure places to sleep. Tourism starts with beds, with rooms to put people up in, that is where the money is found".
Tourism is a tool for change
Inon believes that with patience and hard work, the numbers will start to climb. "I believe that tourism is a tool for change. When a tourist sleeps in Nazerath one night and Capernaum the next, it creates positive energy all around".
Another initiative is one promoted by Yoav Gal, who owns "Israel My Way", a company that specializes in tailoring trips in Israel to a client's specific requests. Gal has an MBA and is a deputy battalion commander in the IDF reserves.
He left his job to peruse his dream. "One of our clients was a group of Mormons, and their members wanted a trip that emphasized education, fellowship and security. So they visited schools where Jews and Arabs studied together.
"In a sharp contrast, a group of Muslims from Turkey participated in Friday services at the Dome of the Rock, accompanied by a local Muslim guide".
"Israel is one of the most multifaceted countries", says Gal, "trips can be made with specific goals, from social involvement, politics and security to leadership development, no two trips are the same."