Papal visit generated significant rise in Christian tourism in first half of 2014

Summer war with Gaza led to slow down.

A shop selling Christmas decorations in the Old City. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
A shop selling Christmas decorations in the Old City.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The Tourism Ministry expects some 70,000 Christians to visit Israel during the Christmas period and, as in years past, is working with local churches to help visitors wishing to travel to Bethlehem on Christmas Day.
From noon on Christmas Eve through to noon on Christmas Day, the ministry is offering free shuttle transportation between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, with buses scheduled to leave every hour on the hour from the bus stop opposite Jaffa Gate, stopping close to the entrance to the Mar Elias Monastery, in south Jerusalem, and at the Rosmarin junction, before continuing via Rachel’s Crossing to Bethlehem – and then back again.
“This festive season carries with it a message of hope and peace and underlines the importance of family values and solidarity,” Tourism Minister Uzi Landau said. “It reminds us how important it is that we preserve these values common to us all.
The State of Israel has a close relationship with Christian leaders and we will continue to invest in the sites that are holy to Christians. Christians will always enjoy freedom of worship in Israel.”
The tourism industry has been hurt by the conflict with the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip during the summer, as well as the spate of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem in its wake.
But the beginning of 2014 witnessed a significant increase in tourism compared to the same period in 2013, meaning that the number of tourists visiting the country and staying more than one night declined over the whole of 2014 by just 1 percent.
There was a 7% decrease in foreign “visitors,” defined as those who visit on a cruise ship or those who stay in Israel for just one day, such as day-trippers from Taba in Sinai and from Jordan.
In the first six months of 2014, the number of tourists and visitors increased by 18% and 8%, respectively over 2013 figures, which was a record year with 3.54 million foreign tourists in total.
The tourism industry is beginning to recover from the decline in the wake of Operation Protective Edge but will take time to fully recuperate. Some 83% of Christian tourists come in the framework of an organized group tour, which take several months to arrange, and rearranging canceled tours can take a similar amount of time.
One of the main drivers of the increased Christian tourism in the first half of 2014 was the visit of Pope Francis in May. The ministry said that the papal visited attracted thousands more Christian visitors and that it “invested about NIS 2.5 million this year in infrastructure and marketing to leverage the visit of the pope, and millions of shekel[s] more in infrastructure projects and upgrades to the Christian sites in advance of the visit.”
Christians made up 59% of all foreign tourists and visitors in 2013, with more than 2 million coming to Israel, out of a total of 3.54 million in all. Christians also made up 96% of day-visitors and 78% of cruise visitors Final figures for Christian tourism in 2014 are not yet available.
Of the Christian tourists in 2013, 40% said they had come to Israel as pilgrims, with the majority coming from the US and Russia, both at 16% of the total, and some 7% from Italy which ranked third.
According to the ministry, it has invested close to NIS 100m. in the development of Christian pilgrimage sites and the required infrastructure, including, the Yardenit baptism site on the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee Gospel trail and promenade, the Mount of Olives, Via Dolorosa, Room of the Last Supper, Ein Kerem, and pilgrimage routes in Jerusalem and Nazareth.
The most visited sites in 2013 by Christian tourists were the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa and the Western Wall, all in the Old City of Jerusalem; as well as the Mount of Olives opposite the Old City; the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee; and the Yardenit baptism site just south of the lake, all of which were visited by more than 80% of Christian tourists spending at least one night in Israel.
Eight-six percent also visited Bethlehem in the West Bank.