The Gospel Tour, Off the Beaten Track

Most tourists in Israel travel in organized groups and spend their money where their guides tell them to. Entrepreneur Maoz Inon believes the future of tourism is independent travel – even if the Tourism Ministry hasn’t reached the same conclusion.

When tourists arrive at one of the hostels owned by Maoz Inon in Jerusalem or Nazareth, their passports are checked for entry stamps to Syria or Lebanon. At the airport, that stamp will earn you an extensive interrogation. At Inon’s hostels, it will get you a free night’s stay. Why?

“We’ve given out hundreds of free nights each year,” says Inon, 37. “It pays off for the country because behind every free night there’s a tourist telling Israel’s story and acting as an ambassador for the Middle East.”

Turning the war-torn region into a magnet for vacationers may sound naive but Inon is working energetically to add the Middle East to the list of popular international travel destinations, alongside New Zealand, South America and the Far East. Gospel-based tours, following in the steps of Jesus, are merely one of his concepts.

Of course, it would help if tourists could move between Israel and its neighbors, he says. But one does what one can.

Israel off the beaten track

All of Inon’s activities are geared toward independent tourists (those not in an organized group). The Tourism Ministry ignores that demographic even though it apparently makes up around a third of tourism to Israel.

Realizing the hidden potential of independent , Inon leased a 19th-century building in the old city of Nazareth and created the Fauzi Azar Inn.

The Tourism Ministry wants to bring five million tourists to Israel by 2015, up from 3.4 million that visited in 2011. Inon cares less about the numbers of visitors and more about how those visitors spend their money when here.

“Independent tourists don’t stay in all-inclusive hotels,” he says. “They rent cars or use public transportation, eat breakfast at a café near the hotel, go out to a restaurant in the evening and visit the cultural attractions and events that they choose instead of the ones the guide tells them to. This is an inquisitive brand of tourism that comes to learn and understand the way of life.”  

Where did Jesus actually walk?

In 2008 Inon initiated the Jesus Trail with American David Landis, an attempt to connect independent tourists with small business between Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. The trail is a 65-kilometer walk starting in Nazareth and ending in Capernaum.

Though based on Jesus' life, the trail passes through sites relevant to Jews and Muslims as well. 

The trail attracts thousands each year. Since its inception, a successful guesthouse opened in Kafr Kana and another one is expected shortly, an ecological campsite opened in Ilaniya, and a family from the Mashhad is considering opening a guesthouse there.

The Tourism Ministry paid for the signs dotting the Jesus Trail promoted it in publicity materials – but not for long. That's because in late 2011 the ministry and the Jewish National Fund inaugurated another trail called the Gospel Trail, which also follows Jesus’s path, but not through Arab towns.  The route skips the Greek Orthodox church in Kafr Kana where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine.

“After the Tourism Ministry introduced the Gospel Trail, they removed the links to the Jesus Trail from their website and removed the markings of the trail from the maps they printed,” says Inon.

Tourism Ministry officials confirmed they give out maps of the Gospel Trail only because “the ministry prepared it, and it is responsible for its validity.” In terms of the route, they say that its Gospel Trail does not pass through any residential community at all, Arab or Jewish.

“Nobody knows exactly where Jesus walked on his journey from Nazareth to Capernaum,” points out a ministry official. “Since the ministry is committed to historical accuracy, we cannot advertise that this is the ‘Jesus Trail,’ since that would be misleading.”

Ministry officials add that the new branch of the trail, which will soon be inaugurated, will pass through Mashhad and Kafr Kana.

Since the Gospel Trail was inaugurated, Inon has retaken control of publicity for the Jesus Trail, bringing well-known travel bloggers, publishers such as Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, and reps from Let’s Go and Footprint travel guides.  He has brought journalists from publications like the New York Times and Washington Post, offering tours that take writers out of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to places like Acre, Safed, and Mizpe Ramon. 

“They take trips on public transportation,” Inon point out, “not because they don’t have money, but because that’s how their readers take trips. They meet the real Israel without a tour guide, driver or representative of the Tourism Ministry. There’s no glass window between them and Israel.”

Dorm lodgings on the cheap

The demographic of independent travelers often includes youth and students without a lot of disposable income. To accommodate them, Inon offers affordable lodging at Israel Hostels, an association of privately-owned hostels in Israel that he founded with entrepreneur Yaron Burgin. Israel Hostels has about 30 member hostels from Eilat to Mizpe Ramon, Nazareth and Jerusalem, including Inon’s own hostels.

Member hostels offer dormitory-style lodgings at up to NIS 100 per night. When established six years ago, the association counted less than 400 beds – now they offer 1,000.

Israel Hostels encourages tourists to travel between Israel and the other destinations in the region as well, such as Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, “because we believe that Israel must not close itself in,” says Inon. “We cooperate with hostels in Jenin, Aqaba, Amman, Nablus and Bethlehem. We encourage tourists to go there.”

The hostels have no shortage of customers. Inon says occupancy in July and August in Jerusalem was at 97 percent and 90 percent in Nazareth.  

More than 100,000 people stayed at his two hostels this year and Inon hopes to reach 500,000 in the next several years by adding more. His dream is to reach places like Arad, Metulla, and Kiryat Shmona were high-end bed-and-breakfasts dominate the market and a bed under NIS 100 is hard to find.

Inon will get to share his story with an important delegation in November when the annual World Hostel Conference, with 300 attendees, is held in Jerusalem for the first time rather than North America or Western Europe.

“We succeeded in taking the conference out of those banal destinations and bringing it to Jerusalem,” he says proudly.

“The Tourism Ministry has become irrelevant”

One noticeable absentee at the conference will be the Tourism Ministry, which was invited to attend and responded only that it would be willing to hand out hats and pins. (“Isn’t that funny?” says Inon.) Apparently, the ministry only provides grants for international conferences of more than 400 participants.

“The Tourism Ministry caters to large groups, and it’s hard for small businesses to break in and get a piece of a pie, which they certainly deserve,” says Inon.

Officials of the Tourism Ministry say that even though the ministry recognizes the importance of the many conferences organized in Israel, it has no mechanism for providing direct financial assistance to all of them.

Inon is adamant that he’s not asking for financial assistance – his ventures are doing fine, thank you.  But he is frustrated by a Tourism Ministry that he believes is heading down the wrong trail.

“The Tourism Ministry has become irrelevant,” he says. “The world of tourism is changing.”

In November, is expected to open an office in Tel Aviv. “The three people who sit there will be more relevant and will have more power to bring tourists to Israel than the Tourism Ministry will," Inon sums up.