For Sukkot, Christian Pilgrims Keep Kinneret's Tourism Industry Alive

Some 70,000 pilgrims are expected to arrive during that week, 20 percent more than visited during last year's holiday season.

While domestic tourism continues to decline in Israel, Christian pilgrims are keeping tourism afloat in the vicinity of Lake Kinneret during the Sukkot holiday.

The number of Israeli tourists visiting the area dropped by 30 percent during the holiday's intermediate days, but some 70,000 pilgrims are expected to arrive during that week, 20 percent more than visited during last year's holiday season.

Some 70,000 evangelical pilgrims arrived this year to Kibbutz Ein Gev according to Tourism Ministry statistics, a 41 percent rise from two years ago.

One thousand pilgrims arrived at Ein Gev on Saturday alone, most of them from France. They were taken for a sailing cruise on the Kinneret and held a mass onboard, then ate St. Peter's Fish in the spirit of the miracle of loaves and fish described in the Christian Bible. Ein Gev expects to receive another thousand visitors every day this week.

Approximately 2.8 million pilgrims have arrived in Israel since the beginning of the year, significantly more than the 2.5 million predicted to arrive over the course of the year.

Gideon Hod, the kibbutz's tourism director, said the rise in tourism can be attributed partly to Israel's 60th birthday celebrations. "The pilgrims certainly coordinated their arrival in Israel with the state's 60th anniversary celebrations. The stable security situation also helped, unlike in 2006, when tourism was thwarted by the Second Lebanon War," he said.

"The program drafted by the government and Tourism Ministry after 2000 to advance pilgrims' tourism in Israel in the wake of the intifada is bearing fruit this year," he said. "Next year we expect another rise, as long as there aren't security tensions in the region and the borders remain quiet."

Some 280,000 tourists arrived in Israel during the Sukkot holiday, most of them pilgrims, a rise of 15 percent from last year. The influx of foreign tourists is heavy even in relation to pre-2000 figures (before the outbreak of the intifada), when a record number of tourists came to Israel.

Tourism Ministry data indicate that May of this year saw a record 300,000 tourists visit the country, up from 292,000 in April.

Avi Sandberg, manager of Tiberias' Astoria Hotel and chairman of the city's hotel union, said that, "During the intermediate days of Sukkot the city had an occupancy rate of 80 percent, due mostly to pilgrims from Eastern Europe and Russia.

"In terms of domestic tourism there is a significant drop. We hardly have any requests," he continued.

The past two days, however, saw a spike in domestic tourism, and yesterday 10,000 Israelis visited the Hula Lake Nature Reserve in the Galilee panhandle. A number of other destinations in the north were also packed with tourists.

Still, owners of bed and breakfasts in the north say that overall, this year's holiday season has been disappointing. David Kaufman, director of the union of bed and breakfasts in Israel, said such establishments in the Golan Heights witnessed a drop of 30 to 35 percent in occupancy compared to this time last year. Those in the Galilee, he said, are standing at 65 percent occupancy, compared to 90 percent during last year's holidays.

Kaufman attributes the phenomenon to "scary remarks from weather forecasters, festivals in the south, lack of attractions in the north, attractive packages abroad and the fact that the north wasn't marketed during Sukkot."

Tourism Ministry staff say the rise in tourism in recent days may be due partly to the cancellation of the Fringe Theater Festival in Acre last week.

Still, domestic tourism on the whole has dropped 6 percent from the beginning of the year. Bed and breakfasts do not keep precise figures, but since their clientele consists almost entirely of Israelis, they have been hit particularly hard by the drop in internal tourism.

Amos Lotan, director of the tourism association of the Galilee communities of Safed, Hatzor and Rosh Pina, said bed and breakfast owners are waging a marketing campaign to fill their empty rooms during the holiday.