Some three million tourists are expected to visit Israel next year. And when they arrive, they will discover a new "Pilgrim's Route" leading from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. Along the way, they will be able to visit the site where the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan took place; the Qumran caves; and the site where, according to the New Testament, John the Baptist baptized Jesus.

"We're in the process of opening the Good Samaritan site to the general public, and the baptismal site is undergoing an accelerated process of development," said a senior official in the Civil Administration, which is responsible for all West Bank tourism sites under Israeli control. "We hope that in 2009, we will open first the Good Samaritan [site], and after that Qasr al-Yehud."

Qasr al-Yehud, meaning "the Jews' Palace," is the baptismal site's Arabic name. It derives from the palatial building of one of the many monasteries located at the site.

The Good Samaritan site is just off the highway leading from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. During the Byzantine era, a church was built at that spot to commemorate the New Testament's tale of a man attacked by robbers while en route from Jerusalem to Jericho, who is refused help by all the passersby except the Good Samaritan. Archaeologists recently reconstructed the entire mosaic floor of the church.

The baptismal site, located near Jericho, is considered the third most important site for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, and is especially popular at Christmas and Easter. The site also has significance in Jewish tradition: It is thought to be the place where the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan when they first entered Canaan.

Eight years ago, the Jordanians set up a successful tourism site at the parallel spot on their side of the Jordan River. Now, the Israeli site - which was a closed military zone almost year-round for years after Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 - is finally undergoing development.

According to Shai Weiner, the Tourism Ministry's deputy director general for economics, planning and infrastructure, the first stage of the site's development, which includes setting up shaded areas and making it wheelchair accessible, will be finished in about two months. The ministry has thus far invested some NIS 3.5 million in the site, and the Defense Ministry will invest about another NIS 1 million to improve the access road.

Weiner said that other Christian pilgrimage sites in Israel typically attract between 400,000 and 600,000 visitors a year, and he expects the same at this site. The ministry noted that the site would also jump start other businesses in the area, such as restaurants and souvenir shops.

Oni Amiel, CEO of Amiel Tours, which specializes in Christian pilgrims, said it is about time Israel began competing with the Jordanian site. "There's an enormous flow of tourists there," he said. "It's important that the site on our side also be respectable - and above all, that there be water in that dried-up Jordan."