For the First Time in 1,600 Years: No Pilgrims in the Holy Land

More grim COVID-19 news: After a record-breaking year in 2019, the torrent of Christian visitors has all but stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic. Can online souvenir sales and prayers fill the void?

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
A Christian pilgrim commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, in 2016.
A Christian pilgrim commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, in 2016.Credit: David Bachar
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Michel Awad of Bethlehem is promoting an initiative these days called Save Tourism. Awad has for more than 10 years been director of the Siraj Center – a Palestinian organization that promotes what it calls experiential tourism in the territories. The situation of all those engaging in tourism in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the West Bank has never been more difficult, he asserts.

Save Tourism sounds like a desperate cry for help, during this challenging era of the coronavirus. Its initiators are targeting Christians throughout the world who cannot travel to the Holy Land at present to encourage them to buy souvenirs online “as if they’d visited Palestine.” The artisans who create these souvenirs – including embroidered items, sandals and various small handicrafts – are barely surviving these days.

This is one of the rare times in the past 1,600 years that the Holy Land has been virtually devoid of Christian pilgrims. This branch of tourism in Israel, which looked so stable, is silently collapsing. Indeed, this is especially noticeable because in 2019 there were record-breaking numbers of religious-oriented tourists who thronged Israel and sites in the Palestinian Authority.

Today the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is empty. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, which typically sees lines of hundreds of tourists waiting to enter, stands desolate. Capernaum and other famous biblical sites around Lake Kinneret are all but abandoned.

A municipal worker sprays sanitizer outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the old city of Jerusalem, in March 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The last time the numbers of pilgrims visiting the Holy Land dwindled significantly was around 150 years ago, during the Franco-Prussian war, which sparked an upheaval in Europe. Now it’s quite clear that the faithful will be physically absent from tourism sites and attractions in Israel and the PA for at least a year. What looked at first like a temporary situation is becoming worse every day as the pandemic continues to take its toll locally and worldwide.

“For years we were encouraging residents of the cities and villages in Palestine to pursue a livelihood in tourism,” says Awad, who sits on the board of the Palestinian Society for Travel and Tourism Agents and is active in a number Palestinian communal organizations.

“We encouraged the local community to open hospitality sites to improve the experience of visitors to Palestine. We developed new things like hiking trails, bike riding routes, home hospitality programs and student exchanges. But we made many residents 100 percent dependent on tourism – and now they are vulnerable to the crisis created by the pandemic. These families haven’t made any money since March. In the Palestinian Authority there isn’t any organized government assistance, and thus the Save Tourism initiative is aimed at helping to bring some kind of income to those who work in tourism,” he says.

When Awad describes the situation in Bethlehem he sounds despondent: “All the hotels are closed. Ninety-five percent of the restaurants are closed. All the souvenir shops are locked down. Tour guides and bus drivers aren’t working. The market is operating at around 10 percent of its usual capacity. There’s no money in the system.”

Christian pilgrims observe Good Friday on Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem, in 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

How are these people surviving?

Awad: “There are some who are living off their savings. We’re a strong community, where there’s solidarity and mutual assistance. Family members help out. I would estimate that half of those employed in tourism went over to working in construction in Israel. The situation is difficult.

"I can’t remember another period like this. In 2000 there was a low point for tourism that lasted about two months, but now the situation is different. The combination of the coronavirus and the political and economic crisis is deadly. The atmosphere is depressing.”

Undaunted visitors

Pilgrims visit the Qasr al-Yahud baptism site. A million pilgrims bring some $1.5 billion to the state and tourism businesses each year.Credit: Gili Merin

The Christian pilgrim tourism market was always considered the most stable here. These tourists would arrive during even the most difficult and violent periods, when others wouldn’t dare visit Israel. They ignored wars and epidemics, government upheavals and economic crises. Nothing stopped the faithful from coming to pray in the land of Jesus.

Even during unstable periods in the past, including during the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, pilgrimage tourism flourished in the Holy Land. These visitors enjoyed technological progress in the form of improved, direct sailing routes to Jaffa and the creation of a railroad to Jerusalem. They came to the land of the Bible for religious and other reasons – to atone for their sins, for reasons of health and even to find a spouse or make a living. Many believed that visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a necessary stage in preparing for the afterlife.

After the Crimean War ended, during the year 1856, thousands of Christian pilgrims ascended to Jerusalem. In 1867, Mark Twain paid his visit – famously documented in “The Innocents Abroad” – along with a group of religious American tourists. During 1872 some 1,000 people arrived on pilgrimage and in 1893 a large conference was held in Jerusalem of Catholic clergy and pilgrims that attracted thousands.

Fast-forward to 2019, when Israel hosted a record-breaking total of 4.2 million tourists, of whom a million were Christian pilgrims – a 25-percent chunk that had held steady throughout the previous decade. Eight-five percent of these guests typically arrive in organized groups; last year they spent an average of eight nights in the country. About half are usually Catholic, one-quarter identify as evangelicals and 10 percent belong to one of the Orthodox churches.

The site of Qasr al-Yahud, December 2018Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

While the majority typically come only to tour the holy sites, others combine their pilgrimages with visits to other places, including Tel Aviv. All of them visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Most groups follow a regular itinerary of other Christian attractions – Lake Kinneret, Qumran near the Dead Sea, Nazareth and the baptismal sites along the Jordan River, one of which, south of the lake, draws some 350,000 pilgrims each year.

A million pilgrims bring some $1.5 billion to the state and tourism businesses, based on the assessment that each visitor spends around $1,500 during a trip that lasts a week. All of that income has simply vanished this year.

Time for renovations

The Custodia Terra Santa, whose members are tasked by the Vatican to safeguard Christian sites in the Holy Land, has in recent months implemented plans to preserve and to renovate churches and other places of importance to Christians in Israel – the aim being to exploit the pandemic-spurred break in local tourism to improve infrastructures.

The deserted main street of Nazareth, in September. "We made many residents 100 percent dependent on tourism and now they are vulnerable to the crisis," says Awad. Credit: Hazem Bader/AFP

Among the sites that have undergone renewal are the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the Church of All Nations near the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, the Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa and the Shepherd’s Field Chapel. Since 2017, Bethlehem’s famed Church of the Nativity has undergone a comprehensive renovation, the first in more than 500 years.

For her part, Noga Sher Greco, director of the religious tourism department of the Israel Tourism Ministry, is trying to stay optimistic, even in light of the fact that she knows there are many pilgrims who want to come to Israel but cannot due to the coronavirus situation. The ministry’s marketing efforts abroad are continuing with the clear aim of renewing as soon as possible the flow of religious tourists – who, all agree, will be the first foreign visitors to return here.

Part of Sher Greco’s optimism stems from the fact that the pilgrims who do arrive will have several new or refurbished sites to visit. She mentions the Terra Sancta Museum in Jerusalem, a new project of the Custodia, which will showcase items that were brought to the Holy Land by pilgrims, which have never been displayed before; the antiquities site at Magdala on Lake Kinneret; and the Saxum Visitor Center near Abu Ghosh, outside Jerusalem.

The Saxum center opened in February 2019, and during its first year attracted 100,000 visitors, nearly all of them Christian tourists. Almudena Romero, director of the visitors center, tells Haaretz that since none of those visitors are able to get into the country, the center is trying to attract Israelis.

“In recent months we’ve discovered that there are many Jewish Israelis who are interested in the history of Christianity,” she says, adding that in any case she has no doubt the pilgrims will return en masse, when it’s possible. “The desire to come is there, and we’ve already gotten many requests from pilgrimage groups.”

Christian worshippers in the grotto of Bethlehem's Church of Nativity, in 2013. Those pilgrims who do arrive will have some new attractions to visit, says Sher Greco of the Tourism Ministry.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP

Noga Collins-Kreiner, of the University of Haifa’s department of geography and environmental studies, is an expert in pilgrimage tourism and describes the current situation, with all the Christian sites empty and shuttered, as “inconceivable.”

“The desire of the faithful to come to a holy place is powerful. The religious tourism industry has always been considered something that gets back on its feet quickly,” the professor says. “At present, when social distancing will be key in allowing the tourists back in, there are advantages to Christian visitors. In most cases theirs is a trip by a community – a closed group or capsule that was closed in advance. These people stay together from the point of departure until the destination. It’s relatively easy to control this."

She adds: "These are people who are disciplined by nature come with a clear purpose. They are committed to the other members of their group, to a defined itinerary and a clear schedule. All this is encouraging when one tries to envision the pilgrims’ return” after the era of coronavirus restrictions.

“On the other hand,” Collins-Kreiner continues, there are also problems. Usually these are groups of older people and they won’t be in a hurry to begin to travel again. And then of course there are the problems all religions are having. A mass involves multiple participants and is not recommended now. Believers are also used to a lot of physical closeness; when immersing in the Jordan, for example, they support one another. These are forms of behavior that make it difficult to maintain distance. In light of all this, there will be difficulties returning to the way it was in the past.”

Tabernacle fest loss

The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem's Feast of Tabernacles, in 2019. A huge event that draws thousands of evangelists, but was cancelled this year. Credit: Jani Salokangas/ICEJ

Every year during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem usually hosts the Feast of Tabernacles – one of the biggest tourism and pilgrimage events of the year, drawing thousands of evangelicals from all over the world. This year the event, scheduled for the holiday which falls this week, was to mark the 40th anniversary of the embassy’s founding. More than 7,000 guests were expected to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and show support their for Israel.

The event was canceled, of course, and instead there are daily online prayer services and seminars being broadcast directly from various sites around the country and other special programs via leading Christian media outlets. In fact, the virtual format is allowing the embassy to host more speakers and workshops than usual.

To get an idea of the extent of the loss due to the cancelation this year, in 2017 some 6,000 evangelicals attended the Feast of Tabernacles. Its main event was held at the Arena hall in Jerusalem and was attended by 30 members of parliament from 20 countries; there were more than 550 American guests, some 500 Brazilians, over 400 Chinese believers and others from every European and African country. All told they spent 10,000 nights in Jerusalem hotels and about 15 million shekels ($4.37 million) while visiting. In October 2020 those numbers look like a mirage.

In an interview with the Ynet website in 2017, embassy spokesman David Parsons explained that each year, “thousands of Christians come here and tour the country for a week or two, and they’ve come even during bad times, even during the second intifada when everyone else canceled – they want to stand by Israel. We don’t want to just be fair-weather friends. Even when there are problems we’re here, because this is when you need us the most.”

Speaking to Haaretz last week, he explained that this year there simply isn’t any alternative:

Orthodox Christian pilgrims in the Old City of Jerusalem. "Anyone walking around Jaffa Gate sees everything closed, and it’s really sad," says Parsons of the International Christian Embassy.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“For years we’ve been known because our believers come here during even the most difficult times. We held our tabernacle festival in Jerusalem during the Lebanon war, when there were no other tourists, and during the period of major terror attacks in the early 2000s,” Parsons says.

“The annual Jerusalem march, which people wanted to cancel many times, was saved thanks to us. This year, it’s simply not possible. Anyone walking around Jaffa Gate in the Old City sees everything closed, and it’s really sad. Israel has an entire industry, many people, who depend on Christian tourism for their livelihood. Our pilgrims want very much to return here. They are in love with this place and with the people of Israel.”

He says he has no idea what evangelical tourism will look like in the foreseeable future, but notes that for now, new technological developments allow believers around the globe to sit at home and enjoy the sensation of touring Jerusalem.

“We’ll bring Israel to them,” Parsons says quietly, “and hope that this is a one-time thing.”

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