Christian leader: Pilgrims and Asian tourists boost Holy Land tourism

More than four million visitors are expected in Israel in 2018, 14 per cent more than the previous year. Bethlehem has 95 per cent hotel occupancy. For Sobhy Makhou, such "unexpected" levels are due to visitors from China, South Korea and India. But more infrastructure and new rules for access to holy places are needed.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - Holy Land tourism, including religious tourism, has hit "unexpected levels" this year. The flow of pilgrims "has topped forecasts", especially the many visitors "from Asia – in particular, China, South Korea, India – many of whom are Christians,” said Sobhy Makhoul, of the Maronite Church of Jerusalem and administrator of the Christian Media Center.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he said that accommodation is a problem. "We had to rely on hotels in Jericho and Hebron, which are 40 km from Jerusalem. In Bethlehem, there are more hotels, 28 at present but they are not enough." People who want to visit the Holy Sepulcher "have to wait up to three hours and this gives an idea of ​​the number of pilgrims. We are at or near maximum capacity."

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism "is trying to solve the problem,” he noted. “Jewish agencies use hotels in Palestine. A few days ago, the ministry signed an agreement with the Philippine Labour Ministry to bring over a thousand Filipinos to meet the needs."

The current trend is a shot in the arm for tourism in Israel and Palestine after a precipitous decline in the recent past. The worst year was 2015, the lowest of the decade, following a series of knife attacks that sowed fear among residents and visitors.

Some 3.8 million tourists visited Israel in the first 11 months of this year, 14 per cent more than in the corresponding period last year.  The goal is to exceed four million. "In October alone, there were 483,000 tourists, 40 per cent over the same month in 2017," Sobhy Makhoul said.

Bethlehem is one of the places that is benefitting from the tourist boom with hotel occupancy expected to exceed 95 per cent by the end of December. Bethlehem businesses also said they were benefiting from a surge of visitors to Israel for its 70th anniversary year.

The number of pilgrims is up for Advent, especially in the traditional sites, like the restored Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which now can show off its original splendor.

“We have never received this number of tourists coming to Palestine,” said Palestinian Minister of Tourism Rula Ma’ayah. “Especially in a city like Bethlehem, tourism creates waves throughout the economy.”

This has one added benefit. “Christians are leaving the Holy Land due to the lack of peace and economic hardships and we are struggling to keep them in their homeland,” said Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman. Tourism “is one of the ways” of keeping them.

The renovation of the basilica began in 2013, a year after UNESCO declared it a world heritage site. So far, million out of million have been raised to complete the work.

"It is not easy to understand the reasons for this jump in tourism,” said Sobhy Makhoul. Many are "studying the trend. One of the reasons appears to be the increase in visitors from China, South Korea, India (more than 30,000 in 2018), especially Christians who come for religious reasons.”

“For us this is a new market,” he added. “The US market remains stable and the decline from Europe continues.” Hopefully, the "trend will be sustained, favoured also by a climate of relative stability in the region. This is why it is more necessary than ever to improve infrastructures to support the hospitality industry, whilst preparing a new plan for the holy places to regulate the flow of pilgrims and visitors."