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ISRAEL: High hopes for Christian pilgrims

May 12, 2009 |  6:35 am

Catholicism's No. 1 Pilgrim is visiting the Holy Land this week,
and Israeli authorities hope a Welcome successful, smooth visit will bear not only
diplomatic but also economic fruit.

The holy sites are part of Israel's landscape, but so are the politics that encourage tourists or deter them. Israel's tourism industry expands and contracts frequently depending on the situation, impacting the economy. And it's flexible only to a point.

Pope John Paul II's visit in the jubilee year was a promising beginning for Holy Land tourism in the new millennium. But the growth spurt was short-lived, as the second intifada, or uprising, that erupted in October that year rendered Israel a dangerous and controversial destination. The new hotels built with pilgrims in mind stood empty, and the industry went into a two-year slump that left 40 hotels closed and 80,000 people unemployed.

It recovered. Last year saw a record 3 million visitors to Israel; 2 million of them were Christians, half of them pilgrims. The Palestinian Authority also saw growth last year, and Bethlehem enjoyed an increase of nearly 100% in tourism, attributed to improved security and access. Understanding the importance of efficient operation of border crossings, the Tourism Ministry has posted  representatives at the Bethlehem crossing to help smooth tourist crossings.

But 2009 was off to a bad start. The global recession and the military operation in the Gaza Strip did tourism no favors, but officials say vigorous marketing curbed the drop. A $12-million budget is earmarked for marketing activities this year, with the intention of leveraging tourism as a swift and important growth generator.

Even if only 1% of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics visit Israel every year, this translates into 1.2 million more tourists. Israel is keen to see this happen, and that is why it is imperative that the pope's visit be successful. Oded Ben-Hur, a Foreign Ministry official and former ambassador to the Holy See, said in a briefing this week that an influx of such tourists would send a pacifying message, give the Palestinian economy a boost and help block extremists. "Pilgrims are soldiers of peace," he said.

Addressing the pope at the Western Wall this morning, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said, "Your call to all the faithful to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem carries great significance for us and will help promote the very peace to which you have referred in your speeches in Israel."

These soldiers of peace also spend an average $1,500 each, reports the newspaper Haaretz, calculating that the estimated 15,000 pilgrims who followed the papal visit to Israel brought an immediate economic benefit of $22.5 million this week alone.

Nir Barkat, recently elected mayor of Jerusalem, speaks frequently of the need to leverage the city's tourism potential to revitalize its troubled economy. Sacred as they are, holy sites don't sell themselves,  and Barkat has big plans in this department. "We would like to see every believer visit Jerusalem at least once in his lifetime," he said this week.

Jerusalem isn't alone. Chronic neglect and under-budgeting have taken a toll on Nazareth, the northern city that lost its Christian majority to Muslims 25 years ago despite its holy sites. Even as hundreds of workers were still hammering away at 23 simultaneous projects a few days ago, Mayor Ramez Jaraisy said the government hadn't provided the nearly $5 million in funding.

Tareq Shahada, who heads the city's organization for culture and tourism, says this is a historic opportunity for Nazareth and Israel. "There is a small town in Italy visited by 20 million tourists every year for a tiny bit of Mary's home brought there. Here, in Nazareth, we have the whole house." Jesus is a winning brand, he told the media.

Past tourism ministers have blundered in the brand department, marketing models instead of monasteries. Misezhnikov said this week that "their mistake was that our neighbors also have pretty young women and beaches" and Israel, which can't compete with their package deal prices, needs to focus on what it has and others don’t. "The Holy Land, with Jerusalem as its center, is our best tourism product and it has no competitors," he said.

* Speaking of products, it seems some of them are spoiled. An environmental NGO dedicated to cleaning Israel's seas and rivers launched a campaign to clean up the Jordan River, complete with an open letter to the pope.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Full coverage: Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Photo: Welcoming ceremony for the pope at Ben Gurion airport. Credit: Government Press Office