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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Christian tourism to Israel has increased by 17 percent since Pope John Paul II visited nine years ago, the Tourism Ministry said on Thursday.
Nearly 1.8 million of the 3 million tourists who came to Israel last year were Christians, the ministry said. In 2000, 1.5 million Christians came.
The number of Christian visitors from Eastern Europe and Africa was up dramatically in 2008 compared to 2000, while the figures for Western Europe and Asia fell.
Meanwhile, there was a 40% increase in Christians from the United States visiting Israel last year compared to the year 2000, while there were fewer visitors from Latin America, including a 64% drop from Argentina and 37% decrease from Mexico.
Last year, more than a million incoming tourists defined themselves as Catholic, 300,000 as Protestant, 360,000 as "other Christian," and 75,000 as Evangelicals, according to the Tourism Ministry statistics that were released during a tour of Christian holy sites in Nazareth ahead of the Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Holy Land next month.
Meanwhile, the number of Christian visitors who defined themselves as pilgrims shot up a whopping 43% over the last eight years, with more than one million in 2008 - more than half of the Christian visitors - calling themselves pilgrims.
The pope will visit the Holy Land between May 11 and 15, with stops that will include Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
The government has allocated NIS 43 million for the pope's visit, Rafi Ben-Hur, a deputy director-general at the Tourism Ministry, said at a press briefing in Nazareth. The ministry will inaugurate a special Web site ahead of Benedict's visit in seven languages at www.holyland-pilgrimage.org starting on April 15.
The ministry hopes the papal visit will be an impetus to further increase Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, as was the case in the months after John Paul's visit in 2000.
"The important thing is that we are building up plans for the future," Ben-Hur said.
The desire for a tourism boom is especially great in Nazareth.
"Our great hope is that we will see a great increase in tourism in Nazareth in the wake of the pope's visit that will improve the socioeconomic situation in the city," said Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy, who is Greek Orthodox.
The city is undergoing a NIS 20 million development project ahead of Benedict's visit, which will include a mass for 40,000 on Mount Precipice (Mount Kedumim) - where Christian tradition holds that a mob pursued Jesus and tried to throw him over a cliff - as well as an interreligious meeting and a tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the city's Franciscan convent, Jaraisy said.
A press center will service journalists covering the pope's visit to Nazareth at the city's Golden Crown Hotel.
The increase in Christian pilgrims following the last papal visit ended abruptly with the outbreak of the second intifada in the fall of 2000.
Last year was a record year for tourism to Israel.