10,000 pilgrims expected to join Benedict on his visit
Tourism Minister says evangelical community has "huge" tourism potential.
By ETGAR LEFKOVITS
Israel expects 10,000 Christian pilgrims to accompany Pope Benedict XVI on his trip to the Holy Land next week, and an increase in the number of Catholic visitors this year as a consequence, Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov said on Tuesday.
He noted, however, that the number of evangelical Protestants visiting Israel this year was still expected to exceed the number of Catholic tourists.
"The evangelical community is a huge tourism potential which we have barely tapped into," Meseznikov said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Three million tourists visited Israel last year, including 1.8 million Christians, breaking the record set in 2000.
A whopping 70 percent of Christian tourists last year were evangelicals, Meseznikov said.
The newly appointed tourism minister said that as a result of the world economic crisis, it would be a "huge accomplishment" if Israel were to receive 2.5 million overseas visitors in 2009. He added that he hoped to see that number back up to three million next year.
Meseznikov said the expected boost in tourism this year as a result of the papal visit would necessarily be dented by the global economic slowdown.
"Even a very devout Catholic who wants to come in the wake of the papal visit will not be able to if he doesn't have the money," he said.
At the same time, the minister said, Israel did not currently have the infrastructure to host many more than three million tourists a year. He added that four hotels were being built, including two in Jerusalem, in the next two years.
Israel hoped its evangelical friends would visit to ease the impact of the world financial crisis, Meseznikov said.
"A visit to the Holy Land can help Israel out of the crisis," he said.
The full interview will appear in Friday's Jerusalem Post.
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