Middle East News
In Jesus' footsteps - Israel goes for faith-based tourism
By Jeff Abramowitz Apr 30, 2011, 2:06 GMT
Tel Aviv - Israel is embracing Christianity.
Or more precisely, the Jewish state is embracing Christian pilgrims, and has switched its prime tourism marketing focus from, as a Tourism Ministry official once put it, the country as a source of 'sea, sun and (super model) Bar Rafaeli,' to Israel as the Holy Land with Jerusalem at its centre.
As far as the officials are concerned, the strategy is paying off.
Some 69 per cent of the 3.45 million tourists who visited Israel last year were Christian, double the amount of the previous year. More than half of them were Catholic, and nearly 40 per cent of all incoming tourists described themselves as pilgrims.
Most visited Bethlehem, Christian sites in Jerusalem, and Nazareth - according to city officials, the town where Jesus spent his boyhood had the highest hotel occupancy in Israel in the past two years.
The latest initiative to attract pilgrims is the 60-kilometre 'Gospel Trail,' which runs from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. Developed at a cost of 600,000 dollars, it encompasses sites visited by Jesus and his disciples.
These include the starting point, on Mount Precipice, where according to the Gospel of Saint Luke an angry mob tried to throw Jesus off a cliff outside Nazareth after he had preached in his hometown synagogue.
The route also takes in Tabgha, where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes and the site of his post-resurrection appearance, and the Mount of Beatitudes, where he delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
The trail ends at Capernaum, on the north-west-tip of the Sea of Galilee, which was the centre of Jesus' Galilee Ministry.
Secondary trails from the main route take in Cana, where Jesus turned the water into wine, Mount Tabor, believed to be the 'high mountain' where Jesus ascended and underwent the Transfiguration, and the Horns of Hittin, site of an 1187 battle between the Crusaders and Saladin.
The trail is set to open to pilgrims in the coming weeks, once all the necessary infrastructure has been completed, but a pre-opening hike for journalists and Catholic seminary students took in the first three or so kilometres.
The route snakes - at times steeply so - down Mount Precipice through trees and along rock-strewn fields with Nazareth, itself built on a hill which gets smaller and smaller in the background before disappearing around a bend in the path.
Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Israel, Nazareth, beamed as led the hike, and unlike some of the reporters who accompanied him, showed no ill-effects from the walk in the sun. Behind him, students from the seminary played guitars and sang, their joy at walking the trail clearly evident.
The opening of the Gospel trail comes several months after the Tourism Ministry unveiled another pilgrimage route, this one based around sites visited by, or associated with, the Virgin Mary.
Called 'In the footsteps of the Virgin Mary,' the route takes in Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem, Capernaum, and of course Bethlehem, this last stop on the itinerary in cooperation with local Palestinian tourism personnel.
A 10-day itinerary takes in Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Mount Tabor, Haifa, Caesaria, Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
A shorter, five-day itinerary includes Nazareth, Jerusalem, Capernaum and Bethlehem.
'The Holy Land is the homeland of the Virgin Mary, where all the important events in her life took place, and it is only natural to follow a pilgrimage itinerary in her footsteps,' said Tourism Ministry Director-General Noaz Bar Nir.
It's not only Israel's Tourism Ministry which has seen the potential of faith-based tourism.
Parallel - almost literally so - to the Gospel Trail is the privately run, 65-kilometre-long 'Jesus Trail,' launched in 2007 on the initiative of American Christian David Landis and boasting the slogan, 'Jesus didn't take the bus, why should you?'
Organizer say around 5,000 people have taken this advice and walked all or some of the trial since it was opened.
Although the people behind the Jesus Trail congratulated the Tourism Ministry on the pre-launch of the Gospel Trail, co-founder Maoz Inon did express concern that 'having two similar trails will be confusing for hikers.'
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