10/22/2020, 16.04
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Holy Land economy on its knees as pilgrimages stop because of COVID-19

For the first time in 1,600 years, no pilgrims have come to the Holy Land. The losses reach a total of US$ 320 million. Tourism-related activities support 10,300 families. For expert opinion, the situation is worse than during the intifada. We need an overall plan for after the crisis that also involves the dioceses in the world.

IJerusalem (AsiaNews) – The novel coronavirus pandemic has dealt a hard blow to Holy Land pilgrimages, which represents one of the main sources of income for Palestinian Christians. As a result, their revenues from tourism in 2020 will be close to zero.

“For the First Time in 1,600 Years: No Pilgrims in the Holy Land,” reads the title of an article that appeared in Israeli daily Haaretz. “After a record-breaking year in 2019, the torrent of Christian visitors has all but stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic. Can online souvenir sales and prayers fill the void?” the paper asks.

Tourism and pilgrimages in the Holy Land came to a standstill last March. By late August, losses reached US$ 320 million, which is the equivalent of all the wages for the sector.

The crisis has hit hard not only long-established operators, but also people who recently invested in the rapidly growing sector, with revenues, activities and jobs in a clear upswing.

Some people invested in small and medium-sized businesses, in shops selling locally produced souvenir items for pilgrims. Others bought goods on credit, restructured their homes to include guestrooms, improvised B & Bs, built small lodgings, borrowed – even a lot – for renovations.

Pilgrimages are essential to sustain the Christian presence in Palestine and it is necessary that they resume as soon as the global health situation allows it. On terrasanta.net, it is possible to see the magnitude of the crisis triggered by pandemic and the economic losses caused by the collapse of religious pilgrimages.

Tourist revenues in Palestine represent 40 per cent of bank transfers from abroad. This billion-dollar sector employs 32,000 Palestinians in transport, hospitality, catering and tourist guide services and provides income to 10,300 households.

In 2019, a record year for religious tourism in the Holy Land, more than 3.5 million tourists visited Palestine and the hotel occupancy rate averaged 70 per cent, which sparked new investments and growth with 155,000 new bedrooms added since 2018.

With the pandemic keeping visitors away, the hotel sector lost US$ 145 million whilst catering lost US$ 7.5 million. Tour bus owners accumulated US$ 85 million in debts for an overall loss of more than US$ 320 million in the sector.

For Tony Khashram, general manager of Aeolus Tours and the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association (Hlitoa), the situation is even worse than during the intifada.

At that time, "pilgrimages never stopped completely". In 2000, tourism lost 90 per cent, but visitors came back after a few months and tourist operators managed to mitigate the effects of the crisis.

"With the present pandemic, we saw total collapse from one day to the next and no recovery is expected.”

For the future, he hopes to see "an overall marketing plan for after the crisis" that also involves the Palestinian government, with the support of the world Church, individual dioceses and the Pope who could launch an appeal to visit the Holy Land.

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