JERUSALEM – Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a mass of activity as tourist and religious groups from around the world flow through the age-old site’s cavernous interiors. Rays of light spread gently around the intricately-designed dome of this house of worship that is venerated by many Christians as Golgotha. This is the land of plenty on the pilgrim’s route; the place where Jesus is said to have been crucified.
Few are the moments here when visitors don’t file into this maze of sacred spaces holding candles and souvenirs, while others bless their trinkets. Located at the end of Via Dolorosa, this is where tourists congregate in the narrow, winding cobblestone streets of the Old City.
WALKING WHERE JESUS WALKED
“I have wanted to come to Israel since I was in middle school reading about the history of the country and the sites,” said student Patrick McKay of Regent University School of Law in Virginia, “I was looking forward to walking where Jesus walked, and all of these biblical places.”
“The modern state of Israel fascinates me as its very existence is a modern-day miracle. God directly brought it into existence.”
McKay is not alone in his beliefs. Despite intermittent political turmoil, Israel is attracting record-breaking tourism arrivals due in large part to faith-based groups that globally represent a US$15 billion industry.
Ironic as it may be, Christian tourism to Israel is fueling this country’s economy like at no other time. It is this group – spurned on by popular evangelical pastors in the US – that have become the nation’s most ardent supporters.
Trends show a general leap in tourism arrivals to Israel. This year record-breaking numbers have already been recorded with 280,000 visitors arriving for the month of July, an 11 percent increase over last year and 7 percent higher than in 2008.
While 550,000 tourists came from the United States in 2009, Canada has seen healthy increases reaching 60,000 from some 43,000 in 2004. The Israel Tourism Ministry hopes to see that the number to hit 100,000 by 2012.
CHRISTIAN TOURISM THE KEY DRIVER
Faith-based tourism is a key driver in these numbers. Christian arrivals to Israel have increased by over 300 percent in the past five years, representing a market of almost 80 million in the Unites States alone. In 2009, 63 percent of all arrivals to Israel were Christian.
Canadian tour operators offering faith-based tours to Israel and the Holy Land include Globus, Tour Design, Collette Vacations, Trafalgar, Gateway International, and Goway Travel.
In a region where political instability can hit at any moment, finding a committed base of travelers is a much-desired golden mean.
“A Catholic priest or a Protestant pastor usually leads church groups by building towards such a tour sometimes a year in advance, especially those from North America,” said Jerusalem-based Uzi Gafni, head of the marketing administration department of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.
“A visit to the Holy Land is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and the spiritual leader is there for the group and has generally been to the Holy Land many times before.”
Gafni says that church leaders are less prone to postponing a trip in the event of destabilizing since they have a keener awareness of the conditions on the ground.
“There are less cancellations than years ago, because the spiritual leaders assure that you will not go to places like Gaza or the places that comes to mind when there is a conflict,” Gafni said, “Most tours do not go to the places of conflict.”