Papal Visit, Tourism's Deliverance?

Officials pray for pilgrim dividend from mission of Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Israel tomorrow, and the Tourism Ministry is hoping he will bring in tidings of tourist dollars.

When his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, paid a visit in 2000, the ministry predicted it would bring 500,000 Christian pilgrims to Israel that year. By that September the actual number was 750,000. The target this time around is for 25% more tourists in 2009 than in 2008.

In 2000 the pope was accompanied by 47,000 pilgrims. Only about 10,000 are expected to arrive with Pope Benedict, although in the past few days there have been indications that this number could reach 15,000, including people entering via Egypt and Jordan.

Despite the popular image of pilgrims as thrifty, budget tourists, pilgrim tourism makes a significant contribution to the economy: Each pilgrim spends an average of $1,500 per visit. At that rate, the 15,000 pilgrims now anticipated would funnel about $22.5 million into the economy this week alone.

Genesis Tours, which makes the travel arrangements for most pilgrims to Israel, is placing most of them in kibbutzim in the Galilee and hotels around Nazareth and Lake Kinneret.

"For a full week, thousands of pilgrims from Europe and South America will be visiting the sites in the Galilee, bringing welcome activity to local businesses in this slow season," said Kurt Kaufman, the general manager of Genesis Tours.

The rest of the country will see fewer financial rewards from this week's pilgrims. The amphitheater at Mount of the Precipice in Nazareth, where the pope is to celebrate mass on Thursday, is being expanded to accommodate 40,000 people and will continue to be used as a concert venue in the future. The Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, where the pope will celebrate mass on Tuesday, was renovated in coordination with the Franciscan monastery there. The stage will be removed after the mass, but future tourists and pilgrims will benefit from the improvements to the site.

The Tourism Ministry spent NIS 3 million on infrastructure work for the Upper Room on Mt. Zion, site of the Last Supper. Pope Benedict is not scheduled to visit the baptism site Al-Qasr al-Yehud, near Jericho, but it has been improved for the benefit of future pilgrims.

About 300 journalists from around the world are covering the pope's visit to the region. By way of comparison, when U.S. president George W. Bush came to Israel, only 100 reporters were with him.

The Jerusalem municipality, the Foreign Ministry and the Tourism Ministry will have a press center at city hall to assist foreign and local journalists during the four-day visit. It will be Israel's largest and best-appointed such center.

In addition, the balcony of the municipality building will be converted for use as a live broadcast site, overlooking the Jerusalem skyline. The building will also serve as the departure point for journalists and camera crews.

The press center will offer hundreds of Internet access stations, a few quiet areas for face-to-face interviews, and live TV signals and radio feed of press pool coverage. There will be a second, smaller press center at Nazareth's Golden Crown Hotel, near the Mount of the Precipice.

The Tourism Ministry will distribute information to journalists aimed at boosting Israel's image as well as incoming tourism. Among other things, it will stress that Israel provides full freedom of worship and full access to holy sites, develops and maintains these sites, and supports mutual understanding, and that Jerusalem offers a combination of ancient holy sites with a modern urban infrastructure. It will also emphasize the increasingly close relationship between Israel and the Vatican.

The ministry will also explain that pilgrims can take advantage of other attractions in Israel, such as spa treatments at the Dead Sea and nature walking trails.

The ministry intends to use documentary material from the pope's visit in future tourism campaigns targeting countries with large Catholic populations.