THE SCENE IS ONE OF POSTcard- perfect tranquility and beauty. Up ahead lies the
Sea of Galilee in all shades of blue, with one solitary boat floating on its
placid surface. Beyond, in a blurry haze of pink and purple, are the mountains
of the Golan Heights. To the right is the green valley of Ginossar and to the
left, hidden by greenery, is red-roofed Tabgha Church, which marks the
traditional site where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fish,
feeding a multitude.
Together at the top of the Tel Kinrot archaeological
site with a group of some 20 reporters – guests of the Ministry of Tourism at
the inauguration of the newly opened Gospel Trail in mid-December – are several
groups of pilgrims, who have also been invited to be among the first to hike the
path. Hailing from Mexico, Brazil and the United States, the pilgrims excitedly
snap pictures of each other with the Sea of Galilee in the
“This is very emotional for me,” says Rosario Cruz, an
evangelical Christian from Mexico, who has made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land
as a 40th birthday present for herself. “Here is where our Lord
Her fellow pilgrim Marco Antonio Molina Gonzalez, 50, notes that
walking the trail has given him a better appreciation of the geography of the
area. “It is not the same reading it as experiencing it. When in the Bible it
says that Jesus climbed the mountain, you imagine it being huge, but here you
see it is just a hill,” he says.
These are just the emotions the Ministry of
Tourism is hoping to evoke with its new trail, which is part of a concerted
effort within the ministry to actively cater to the Christian market to increase
the number of Christian pilgrims and tourists visiting Israel.
Christian world is a very rich and expansive world, waiting to visit the Holy
Land, and we are trying to develop services for them,” says Minister of Tourism
Stas Misezhnikov, as he welcomes journalists to the inauguration of the trail.
Later, the minister dons a black riding helmet and joins some of the journalists
on a horseback ride along part of the trail.
The ministry is also hoping
to encourage small enterprises along the new path such as restaurants, shuttles,
and overnight accommodations with small business grants to help the local
economy. Already, a kiosk selling drinks and snacks at the edge of the small
Bedouin village of Wadi Hamam at the foot of Mount Arbel is looking forward to
an increase in business.
While they cannot be 100 percent sure of the
exact path Jesus may have taken in his wanderings, they picked the trail which,
according to their topographical and Biblical research, seems like a logical one
for him to have possibly taken, says Uri Sharon of the Religious Tourism
Department in the ministry – and one which today is possible to traverse. In
addition to walking trails, there will also be bicycle paths and horseback
riding in sections of the trail for greater appeal to a variety of
The 65 kilometer-long trail (about 40 miles) starts at Mount
Precipice just outside Nazareth and continues eastwards down to Capernaum, where
Jesus established his ministry and met his first disciple Peter, with stops
along the way including the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave the Sermon on
the Mount, a little-known spring at the foot of the town of Migdal, known in the
Bible as Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene, and Tabgha. A segment of the trail
also joins the national Israel Trail, which crosses the entire
“I walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela [in Spain] many
times and asked myself how could it be that there is not a path to walk in the
footsteps of Jesus Christ [in the Holy Land],” says Father Juan Maria Solana,
charge of the Holy See for the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem
Center, at the inauguration. “I am extremely happy that many, many Christian
pilgrims will be able to follow the footsteps of Jesus Christ. This is a great
initiative, which will be blessed by many people.”
Two years and almost
$1 million (NIS 3.45 million) in the making, the Gospel Trail joins a parallel
private venture called the Jesus Trail, established by a young Israeli
entrepreneur a number of years ago, which follows a similar path but includes
more challenging trails, and the Palestinian Nativity Trail, an 11-day guided
journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem through West Bank
Misezhnikov says he is not daunted by competition, and sees it
all as part of a positive effort to bring in more visitors to the entire region.
Christians are the ministry’s major target audience, he says, estimating that
the new trail will bring in some 200,000 more pilgrims into the area. He
laments, however, the lack of cooperation with his Palestinian counterparts,
noting that two out of three visitors to Israel also pay a visit to Bethlehem.
There is, however, good unofficial cooperation between the Palestinian and
Israeli tourism sector, notes Pini Shani, the director of the newly formed
Religious Tourism Department.
Father Carlo Rota, an Italian priest who
joined in walking the Gospel Trail at its inauguration, says these efforts by
the ministry will “strengthen and facilitate” the itineraries for
Last year was Israel’s biggest year for tourism, with some 3.45
million visitors of which 66 percent were Christian, according to the Ministry
of Tourism, and 30 percent of all those visitors were pilgrims. The number saw
an overall increase of nine percent in tourism to Israel from 2009, according to
the ministry. Only eight percent of Jewish visitors to Israel describe
themselves as pilgrims, the ministry notes.
The ministry estimates that
direct income from tourism for the year 2011 will total $4.6 billion. Hence, the
estimated income generated by Christian pilgrims alone is $1.3 billion in 2011.
This is a slight increase from 2010, when direct income from tourism reached
“The process of bringing the Christian communities to Israel has been ongoing for several years,” says Shani. “We are
increasing our efforts and in many ways that involves a lot of
One such way was also the development of the Religious Tourism
Department at the beginning of 2011, which is meant to integrate a consciousness
of religious – and especially Christian – sensitivities within every department
in the ministry and to focus on innovative ways of reaching out to the Christian
“For instance [the Tourism Ministry is] creating a
five-year-plan for Tiberias and so we have to make sure the Christian issue is
being raised. I would like to see tour guides instructed on the Gospel Trail,
and to send more ministry inspectors to Christian sites to make sure the
facilities are well-kept and taxi drivers don’t rip off the pilgrims,” says
They are reaching out to all Christian denominations, he says.
Following Pope Benedict XVI’s visit two years ago, the ministry adapted an
Internet site they had developed for the pope’s visit into a special site aimed
at giving specifically the Catholic community information about Israel and
travel to Israel. The site gets about 170,000 hits per month, says Shani. They
also have produced a YouTube video in various languages, which highlights sights
of religious importance to the different Christian denominations. Started
earlier this month, the video has already had 10,000 viewers.
doing a lot of activities before but we are increasing the intensity and working
on a campaign focused on the Christian media. We hope to see the Christian
[visitors] coming,” says Shani.
Even in a year when other countries in
the region faced a 70 percent decrease in tourists because of the political
tensions, Israel has maintained the same numbers as last year, he
Sitting at the festive lunch at the end of our journey,
Anglican Bishop Emeritus Riah Abo El-Assal, Melkite Archbishop Emeritus Boutros
Moualem and Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour says they welcome the initiative,
and are glad to see efforts made to improve Christian pilgrimage. But they are
less enthusiastic about side industries, such as bike riding and horseback
riding, which they say are not suited for a contemplative pilgrimage experience
along the trail.
The Gospel should come before the trail, notes Bishop
Abo El-Assal – and before the horses and the bicycles. “I am happy they took
this initiative to illustrate the fact that Jesus Christ was here and walked
around this area,” says Archbishop Chacour. “Although there is the intention to
commercialize these places, nonetheless it comes back to the real event of Jesus
Christ spending his time around this lake, the most holy place in the Holy Land,
where man has not yet changed the landscape.”
Shani says he understands
the concerns about using holy places to generate income.
“We are aware of
this but we do our work with sensitivity,” Shani says. “We are not the only ones
in the world attracting Christian pilgrims and we are not the
Christian leaders do the same: use faith to raise money. We
offer the Christian tourist a very unique experience. Coming here he is able to
understand his religion better, his Bible better. We are doing it for many
years. We are respecting their needs and investing money in the infrastructure.
The way we treat the pilgrimage site brings a lot of respect to the State of
Misezhnikov is unapologetic, seeing it this way: Spain uses the
pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela – a cathedral where legend has it that
the remains of the apostle James were brought for burial – to boost the Spanish
economy. Why shouldn’t Israel use what it has to offer the world to also aid its
own local economy?
Misezhnikov says he is committed to repositioning Israel as
the place to visit for all believers – including, Muslims, Christians and Jews,
and even atheists. “We believe there is not one person in the world who does not
want to come here once in their life and see history, culture, religion,” he
says. “Why not ‘use’ it to encourage pilgrimage, tourism?” His ministry is also
very supportive of private Christian initiatives, such as the Magdala Guest
House being established by the Notre Dame Center, he notes.
“I invite any
investors in the Catholic world, in the Evangelical world to come to build
prayer houses here,” he says. “We preserve places for [people of many
We emphasize the rich history of this holy place and we give
everyone the opportunity to have an experience here, which they can’t get
anywhere else.” •