Israel expects 100,000 or more Christians to visit during holidays

Among the perks for Christian visitors provided this year by Israel’s Tourism Ministry are free shuttles from Jaffa Gate to Bethlehem and back on Christmas eve and a fireworks display in Nazareth.

By: Batya Jerenberg, World  Israel News

According to Israel’s Tourism Ministry, over half (53%) of all 2.9 million tourist entries to Israel last year were Christian. Almost a quarter of them – 23% – defined the purpose of their visit as pilgrimage. The ministry expects a 20% increase in tourism this year, with the period surrounding the most important holiday on the Christian calendar remaining a key period for tourism.

That Jerusalem is the most popular destination for these visitors is perhaps unsurprising. What is interesting, however, is that according to ministry data, four of the seven most visited sites in the city are Jewish: the Western Wall, the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, the Mount of Olives and the City of David. The more predictable “big three” remain the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Annunciation.

There are, of course, dozens of churches of all denominations to visit in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, near the Old City and the Ein Karem neighborhood. Night tours, Segway tours, Christmas concerts and more are being offered throughout the city this week and at least through the Orthodox Christian date for celebrating the holiday – January 7th.

Considered the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem expects vast numbers of visitors, and the Tourism Ministry has stepped in to make it more convenient to get there and back from the capital. From 3:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve (December 24) through 3:00 a.m. n Christmas Day, there will be free express buses every half hour from the Carta parking lot on Mamilla Boulevard (opposite Jaffa Gate) to Bethlehem, stopping only at the Mar Elias Monastery and at the Rosmarin junction on the way – and then returning the same way. (There may be changes to the schedule depending on demand.)

Nazareth, Jesus’ childhood hometown, will have its customary parade this Saturday, December 23rd. Nazareth was recently in the news when its mayor reportedly decided to cancel annual Christmas celebrations due to anger over President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, after which he announced that most celebrations would proceed as usual. Leaders of the Christian churches, local dignitaries, and thousands of members of youth organizations will march down the streets before a Tourism Ministry-sponsored fireworks display lights up the air after nightfall.

In a statement regarding the festivities,Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said, “Israel invites the faithful from all religions to pray, worship and visit all the holy sites in Israel, in freedom and security. I am proud to take this opportunity and announce that, this year, we have broken all previous records for incoming tourism and are set to end 2017 with a record 3.5 million tourists, half a million more than the previous record.”