Blazing the Gospel Trail

The Tourism Ministry has inaugurated a new trail in the Galilee that caters to Christian tourists looking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

Baptisim ceremony 521 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN / REUTERS)
Baptisim ceremony 521
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN / REUTERS)
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 background.
“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 walked.”
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.
“The 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 visitors.
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 country.
“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 landscape.
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 pilgrims.
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 $4.4 billion.
“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 money.”
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 tourism market.
“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 Shani.
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.
“We were 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 boasts.
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 largest.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 Israel.”
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 faiths].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.” •