Despite the violence rattling the Middle East, religious tourists are flocking to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories
Carrying a 15-foot wooden cross, John Mbinda traversed the Jerusalem street that Jesus is reputed to have taken to his crucifixion.
For the 74-year-old pastor from Hawaii, his trip to Israel was the culmination of a lifelong dream. But the route’s end—at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem—was so packed with other pilgrims that he and his flock turned back.
“On the way of the cross, Jesus had to suffer,” Mr. Mbinda said. “Compared to what he went through, standing there waiting for two hours is nothing.”
Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan, which roughly make up the biblical Holy Land, are enjoying an unlikely wave of religion-based tourism even as the Middle East’s wars and terrorist attacks scare away most leisure visitors. Ironically, the uptick coincides with an exodus of Arab Christians from the region fleeing Islamist extremists.
Many Christian tourists—most frequently from the Americas, Europe or Russia—are brushing aside worries about potential spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria or ongoing unrest in Iraq. That has thrown a lifeline to a tourism industry that remains a critical source of income for many Middle Eastern governments.
The World Tourism Organization estimates that 330 million tourists every year visit religious sites world-wide. (The organization doesn’t provide a breakdown according to religion or an exact number of pilgrims who visit the Middle East.)
In Israel, for example, Christians accounted for 56% of last year’s tourist arrivals, according to Israeli figures—up from 33% a decade ago. Those visitors helped Israel’s tourism industry weather the country’s recent conflict with the Islamist militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, according to tourist officials, and helped overall tourist arrivals in Israel in the past 10 years triple to 3.3 million. For years, Israel has courted Christian evangelical visitors, who provide an important source of tourism revenues and political support.
Still, the region’s upheaval is clearly hampering tourism overall. The number of nonreligious visitors to two of Israel’s neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, are down, officials say.
Overall, the number of tourists to Jordan fell to 5.3 million in 2014, according to the country’s tourism ministry—down from 8.1 million in 2010. Famed Jordanian sites, including the rock-carved city of Petra, a Unesco world heritage site, welcome only a fraction of the visitors they did before revolutions broke out in several Arab states in 2011.
Jordan, which is predominantly Muslim, has responded by promoting tourism to its Christian holy sites—with some success. Officials say that visits rose last year to Jesus’ purported baptism site, near Jordan’s side of the Dead Sea, and to Madaba, a Jordanian town known for a church that houses a striking ancient mosaic map of the Holy Land.
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