Christian tourism to Holy Land slowly recovers ahead of Christmas

Some 120,000 Christian pilgrims expected to visit, but industry experts say that high costs and economic uncertainty could hamper full recovery.

 A group of scouts performs as Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III arrives at the Church of the Nativity to celebrate Christmas according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar, in Bethlehem in the West Bank, January 6, 2022.  (photo credit: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS)
A group of scouts performs as Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III arrives at the Church of the Nativity to celebrate Christmas according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar, in Bethlehem in the West Bank, January 6, 2022.
(photo credit: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS)

The halls are decked, the Christmas trees are lit and all around Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem a steady stream of tourists is beginning to flow.

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After years of pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions, the Holy Land is beginning to see a rebound in Christian visitors. Some 120,000 faithful are expected to visit over the Christmas period, according to Israel’s Tourism Ministry, which will be offering free round-trip shuttles between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during the festivities.

In comparison, some 135,000 pilgrims visited the Holy Land during Christmas week in 2018, and 150,000 visited in 2019, Israel’s record year for inbound tourism.

While the full figures for 2022 are not yet available, a ministry spokesperson told The Media Line that an estimated 1.2 million Christian tourists arrived in Israel from January to November this year.

 The YMCA Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Jerusalem. (credit: JERUSALEM INTERNATIONAL YMCA) The YMCA Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Jerusalem. (credit: JERUSALEM INTERNATIONAL YMCA)

“About half of all incoming tourists are Christian,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “20% of all tourists define themselves as pilgrims – namely 480,000 pilgrims January-November 2022.”

The latest figures come on the heels of the ongoing recovery of Israel’s tourism sector following the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the ministry’s estimates, about 2.6 to 2.7 million tourists will have visited the country in 2022, vs. 4.55 million tourists in 2019.

“Within a short period of time, Israel will be back to pre-COVID record levels for incoming tourism,” the ministry’s spokesperson said. “There is significant and increasing global interest in Israel as an attractive tourist destination that offers a unique mix of religious, historical, and cultural sites, excellent climate, a vibrant culinary and entertainment scene, and a varied landscape.”

Still, some industry experts have warned that several challenges are hampering Israel’s tourism recovery.

Dr. Eran Ketter, a tourism adviser and researcher at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, is managing several market research products on behalf of the European Travel Commission. Ketter told The Media Line that one of the things that he has noticed in recent research is a correlation between economic concern and the window of booking, meaning that people who are currently concerned with economic issues such as inflation or travel prices are less likely to book a trip in the coming year.

“We’re still operating in a world that is half open,” Ketter said. “The Asia-Pacific [region] is still not really functioning when it comes to international travel. All the issues regarding a recession and the cost of travel are definitely challenges. These things might take a little bit of time.”

In terms of how Israel’s tourism recovery has fared in comparison to other countries, Ketter said that things appeared to be heading in the right direction slowly but surely, despite ongoing issues in the aviation sector.

Incoming tourism to Israel reached nearly 60% of 2019 figures this year, he said.

“If we’re comparing ourselves to Greece, for example, we’re below their pace of recovery but all in all I think that 60% for 2022 is quite okay,” Ketter noted.

Several challenges may dampen a more robust recovery, however, most notably Israel’s high prices. According to the World Economic Forum, Israel ranks among the most expensive travel destinations in the world.

Nevertheless, Ketter said that industry leaders are cautiously optimistic about travel in 2023.

“We see that both Europeans and North Americans frame travel as an essential activity, meaning that they would still travel in spite of the global changes in the economic situation,” he explained. “At the same time, I don’t think the numbers [in Israel] are going to go through the roof because although people will still travel, they won’t necessarily go to destinations that are very expensive. They will travel to places that are closer or less expensive.”