Israel is where Jesus walked. It is the land where you can visit his birthplace and empty tomb, where he addressed his believers and where he carried out miracles. How can a land like this attract only a few hundred thousand pilgrims a year, while Lourdes in France gets up to six million pilgrims and tourists a year, the Fatima shrine in Portugal attracts about the same and 1.5 million people a year visit the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain?
Last year only 350,000 Christian tourists dipped into the Yardenit baptismal site in the Jordan River, according to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Israeli travel agents specializing in Christian tourism estimate that 500,000 to 700,000 Christian pilgrims visit Israel annually. Everyone I spoke to put the potential at 10 million a year.
At best, Israeli officials estimate that Christian tourism could reach a million this year. What are we doing wrong?
Three years ago I met Jurgen Nielsen, a member of the Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem who was on a five-month pilgrimage from Sweden, where he lives, to Jerusalem. He has been to Israel several times, most recently last year, for his wedding. He rejects the most common explanations for the low numbers.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is constantly addressed on TV in Europe but that’s not why people don’t come to the Holy Land,” Nielsen says. “Pilgrims don’t fear the conflict. They are imbued with belief and a sense of mission. Prices, which are now low, are also not the reason. Infrastructure, including hotels, food, hygiene — these are all excellent here, yet only a few make the journey.”
Noga Collins-Kreiner, a professor in the University of Haifa’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies who specializes in faith tourism, says the problem is underinvestment by the state.
“We don’t invest in marketing or infrastructure for these tourists,” Collins-Kreiner says. “This market segment was never a major one, perhaps because of the country’s Jewish character, perhaps because some of the major attractions, such as Kafr Kana, are far from the center of the country. Perhaps some people are worried about resistance from [Jewish] religious parties, or maybe it’s the neglect of the country’s periphery. One reason may be the difficulties in getting visas. When the visa requirements for Russian and Ukrainian tourists were lifted, many pilgrims came from these countries,” Collins-Kreiner says. She presents a graph that shows a steady decline in the contribution of Christian tourism to tourism to Israel overall, to 22 percent in 2015 from 31 percent in 2010.
For the past 10 years, Father Juan Solana has devoted himself to establishing and developing Magdala. Known in traditional Christian sources as the birthplace and home of Mary Magdalene, it is situated on the shore of Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. Solana is deeply familiar with the Israeli authorities, the pilgrims who come and the capabilities and limitations of the local tourism industry. He told me that most of the accommodations in Galilee that are suitable for pilgrims operate at full capacity most of the time, adding that in the past 20 years little has changed in terms of tourism infrastructure, including the number of hotel rooms. That means it would be difficult to handle many more pilgrims.
Solana says the country’s major Christian sites are already overcrowded. Visitors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, often wait in line for two or three hours. Solana says that better management is the answer. He suggests expanding hours at holy sites and introducing an effective online reservation system. Solana has praise for the Tourism Ministry but proposes gathering everyone involved in faith tourism to Israel into a single forum in order to plan for the next 50 years.
Asked about the effect of Israel’s Jewish character on Christian tourism, Solana answers in a near-whisper: “Tourism is a professional matter. It’s not religious or political. Tourism operates according to professional criteria throughout the world and we’re happy it’s that way here too. We all know that tourism is an important economic lever in Israel.”
Hana Bendcowsky, a tour guide at Christian sites, has a different answer: “Most pilgrim groups arrive with their spiritual leader. The law here requires them to use a tour guide. As a guide I’m for that but I realize it creates a problem. I have no doubt that Christian pilgrims find it difficult to have a religious experience in the Holy Land with a Jewish tour guide. It’s a spiritual difficulty. Most guides are in denial about it but there is a religious difficulty here.”
Bendcowsky thinks it’s a mistake for the Tourism Ministry to focus on promoting Israel’s beaches, bars and bike trails. “We have difficulty marketing Israel as a Christian religious destination. It’s easier to market wonderful beaches, but we should remember that India, for example, has 24 million Christians. If they want beaches they go to Goa. It’s important to offer them holy sites and religious attractions so that they come here,” Bendcowsky says.
“Problems begin with destinations like Mount Tavor,” she says. “Is it so hard to build an easy road to it, with bus parking? Why do tourists have to depend on a local service that can’t take more than 200 people at once? We create an artificially bottleneck. If we want to enjoy the fruits of tourism we have to help churches to develop the infrastructure around them.”
To give just one example, she says, there are only two public toilets in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, while the Jewish Quarter has dozens.
Samuel Smadja owns Sar-El Tours & Conferences, which specializes in pilgrimage tourism. He says that while Israel is unrivaled as a Christian destination, it must do more to attract pilgrims from developing countries. Africa is experiencing a great spiritual awakening, he says, and the desire to visit Israel is immense. “There is no Christian who doesn’t want to come here at least once. The key to the number of visitors is held by their spiritual and church leaders. If they say it’s safe, the faithful will come.” The main problem, says Smadja, is Israel’s cumbersome visa requirements for tourists from developing states.
Sarit Gani is the marketing director of the Yardenit baptismal site. Like Bendcowsky and Smadja, she points to the untapped pilgrimage potential of the developing world, noting that the site recently welcomed a group of 800 pilgrims from Indonesia. The number of Christian tourists from countries such as Russia has fallen sharply, last year accounting for just one-fourth of Yardenit’s visitors. Gani says Americans, who account for one-third of the total, are motivated by their Christian faith and their love for Zionism.
Vera Baboun has been the mayor of Bethlehem for five years. She stresses that the Palestinian Authority, not Israel, is responsible for developing the local tourism industry. Baboun says her city’s main problem is the duration of tourist stays. “Bethlehem is a first-class tourist destination. In the past, many tourists would spend two days here,” but even those who stay at one of the city’s 55 hotels tend to visit the holy sites and move on. “It’s similar to the Vatican and Rome, here it’s Bethlehem and Jerusalem. We are short of tourists who come for religious reasons and remain to wander the city. We have museums and unique architecture. In 2020 Bethlehem will be declared the cultural capital of the Arab world and there is much development going on,” Baboun says.
She tries to skirt politics, but says she must address an important factor. “Bethlehem is completely safe, but the checkpoints between the city and Jerusalem give the impression that it’s unsafe. I would like to see them removed and let tourists in freely. Bethlehem is a city with a message of peace to the whole world, but there is a feeling that they want to present us in a different light.”
Baboun keeps returning to the restoration of the Church of the Nativity, which began three years ago. It “has allowed us to expose art treasures that are among the most beautiful and important in the world. When the work is done people will come for the art, not just for the pilgrimage,” she says. The elephant in the room is the prohibition, since suspended, imposed by the Tourism Ministry in April on overnight stays in the West Bank. Baboun won’t discuss it.
Tourism Ministry Director General Amir Halevi says great effort is being invested in selling Israel as an attractive destination for Christian faith tourism. He adds that the profound changes in the industry, particularly in the United States, are insufficiently appreciated. “We realized that when the target was seen only as religious, we hit a barrier. We were reaching only older people. A younger group wants to come to the Holy Land but also have a vacation. If religious leaders talk to us about spending time on the beaches of Tel Aviv, that’s a big change. Every day we see more tourists who aren’t defined as pilgrims but who combine religious sites with other entertainment. We can’t measure this so numbers are misleading. We’ve been targeting younger crowds over the last year. They are religious but travel independently, not with a spiritual leader.”