'Christian tourism' growing in Holy Land

NAZARETH, Israel — Strains of "Silent Night" stream from the tour bus speakers on what has become known as the Jesus circuit in Nazareth, northern Israel.

Locals here joke that the carols constitute a whole new category of music in the largely Palestinian city, but the bigger joke, they claim, is making money selling Americans their own Christmas music.

"There have always been Christians who come to the Holy Land. But in recent years they come in huge groups, in tour bus caravans, in the thousands," said Ibrihim Mansouf, a local shop owner in Nazareth. "They want to buy anything, anything that was made in the Holy Land."

Of the 3.5 million tourists that visit Israel each year, 2.4 million travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories for "Christian Tourism," according to the Israeli Tourism Ministry.

It's a billion-dollar industry — one that both Israeli and Palestinian businesses have just begun to capitalize on.

"The Holy Land is becoming the heart of life for people of faith across the entire world. Christmas is a tradition of this land, and all the inhabitants can enjoy the atmosphere and message of peace that the season brings," said the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the custodian of the Holy Land, who oversees Israel and neighboring countries on behalf of the Franciscan Order.

In recent years, there has been a boom in sites and services that mix modern-day tourism with biblical stories. In the north, tourists can visit the "Nazareth Village," a re-creation of life in the time of Christ, complete with wandering shepherds and carpenters who interact with guests.

The "Jesus trail" begins just outside the city, and allows the hardy to walk — quite literally — in the footsteps of Jesus. It's 40 miles long and takes three to five days to cover. Across the north of Israel, Maronite Christian villages offer one-week Aramaic courses based on readings from the New Testament, as well as walks along the hills where Jesus is said to have given the Sermon on the Mount.

All of this before tourists even get to Jerusalem or Bethlehem.

'Bridge to peace'

"Tourism is a bridge to peace and dialogue among cultures," Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov told reporters recently. In recent years, his office has worked to establish access to tour sites in Israel, as well as in the Palestinian territories, he said.

"If I can bring in three more tourists, and two of them visit the Palestinian areas, they will create employment there. This is a win-win situation for Israel and the Palestinian Authority," said the Russian-born Misezhnikov.

Not everyone feels that Israel's new push to cater to Christian tourists benefits both sides equally.

Victor Batarseh, mayor of Bethlehem, recently lashed out at Israeli Tourism officials for trying to "cash in" on tourists visiting the region.

"Israel takes 95 percent of the benefits (of tourism to Bethlehem)," he said. "Israel uses the name of Bethlehem, since religious tourists go to two places, Bethlehem and Jerusalem."

He argued that years of Israel's military occupation and the separation barrier that winds its way around the city have made it difficult for businessmen in Bethlehem to make ends meet — let alone build the type of infrastructure the tens of thousands of tourists would need.

This year, every single hotel room in Bethlehem has been booked — with tens of thousands of tourists spilling out in neighboring Jerusalem for accommodation.

"We don't have enough hotel rooms to deal with these numbers. That's why most of these pilgrims sleep over in Israel. That's why they get most of the profits," Batarseh said. There are five new hotels under development in Bethlehem, but Batarseh said that 10,000 to 15,000 additional rooms would need to be built to house the tourists the city sees in one Christmas season.

Misezhnikov said Batarseh is unjustly heaping guilt onto Israel. He pointed out that Israel has endorsed several international conferences in Bethlehem to plan and raise funds for future business projects in the city.

Sarah Anderson, a 46-year-old teacher from Chicago, visited Bethlehem and Jerusalem for the first time this week.

"There is a big wall between them, and I was expecting two different worlds," she said. "But I felt the holiness of each place was equal and special and had nothing to do with politics."