Israel is banking on Pope Francis’s star appeal to boost its tourism industry.
The country may see a 7 percent jump in arrivals next year just from the pope’s visit, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau said in a phone interview. The Tourism Ministry is using everything from an Instagram contest for a free trip to Israel to live-streaming of Francis’s May 25-26 trip in a bid to draw Christians to follow in the pontiff’s footsteps.
Cameras will be “following the very places where the pope is going to be: Gethsemane, the site of the Last Supper, Mount Zion and the Old City,” Landau said on May 15. “Just having these pictures projected to the rest of the world -- I believe this will inspire many to come.”
Tourism contributes 7.3 percent to Israel’s gross domestic product and employs 7.8 percent of the workforce, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. A quarter of the record 3.5 million tourists who visited Israel last year were Catholic. With GDP growth slowing to 2.1 percent in the first quarter, from 2.9 percent in the previous three months, a rise in tourism would be welcome.
The visit of Pope Paul VI in 1964 “started quite a lot of interest in coming to Israel and visiting the holy places for the Christian world,” said economist Rafi Melnick, a member of the Bank of Israel’s monetary policy committee. “We will see a similar effect now.”
Millions of Views
The government is investing 10 million shekels ($2.9 million) on its pope campaign, including marketing on the web and on social media platforms. The Instagram contest, won by a 22-year-old Venezuelan, drew 34 million banner views during March and April, the ministry said.
The perception of the Middle East as a war zone historically has crimped tourism. The papal visit’s effect on Israel’s tourism will depend in part on how successfully Israel relays the message that it is a safe country “where mothers send their kids to school unescorted,” Landau said.
It also has to broadcast that Christians, who account for more than half of all visitors to Israel, are welcome. The run- up to Francis’ visit has been marred by at least four anti- Christian incidents by suspected Jewish vandals, police said, including “Jesus is garbage” spray-painted in Hebrew on a Jerusalem church and “Murder to the pope” painted on a military vehicle.
Police are stepping up patrols in Jerusalem, northern Israel and the West Bank to protect Christian sites ahead of the pontiff’s trip, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
While most Christians outside Israel aren’t aware of the anti-Christian vandalism, “as more people know about it, I believe people will think twice before coming,” said Wadie Abunassar, chairman of the media committee of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Holy Land.
Tour operators in Catholic markets have already reported increased interest by church groups due to the pope’s visit, Oded Grofman, deputy director general of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association, said in a telephone interview. The vandalism hasn’t triggered cancellations or concern, he said.
“The kind of problems we have now are sometimes lack of hotel rooms and airplane seats,” said Grofman, whose association represents 112 tour companies that bring about 1 million tourists to the country a year.
Francis, who will also be visiting Jordan and the West Bank during his three-day trip to the region, is the third pontiff to visit Israel since the Vatican established diplomatic ties with the Jewish state in 1993.
Unlike in previous papal trips, the pope will fly directly from Amman to the West Bank city of Bethlehem, without going through Israel.
“There is a recognition of the fact that the status of the Palestinian territories is different from the time when John Paul II came and Pope Benedict came,” said David Neuhaus, a spokesman appointed for the visit by the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land. The United Nations General Assembly in 2012 recognized a non-member observer state of Palestine, a resolution supported by the Vatican and opposed by Israel.
“I don’t think you should read too much into the fact that he is flying directly, because the pope is trying to gain as much time as possible,” Neuhaus said.
It’s hard to evaluate the effects of previous papal visits on tourism, in part because they took place shortly before or after major eruptions of violence.
At the Vatican, Francis has proven to be a draw. He attracted more than double the number of attendees to Vatican events in the first nine months of his tenure than predecessor Benedict XVI did during a similar period, according to Vatican statistics.
The highlight of the pontiff’s visit will be his meeting with the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox church, Bartholomew I, marking 50 years after predecessors met to pave the way to ending the churches’ 1054 schism. Francis will also privately bless the tabernacle of a church that’s just been built on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus is said to have preached.
The church is part of a bigger complex, the Magdala Center, that is to include an archaeological park, spiritual center and 150-room hotel. Construction has been led by Father Juan Solana, head of the Pontifical Institute of Notre Dame of Jerusalem, who said he expects a “big increase” in tourism following the papal visit.
“To come here is the dream for all Christians,” Solana said in an interview at the site, “So whenever they get a little push, hopefully they will decide to come.”
The tourism ministry industry in Israel isn’t alone in praying for a pope-related boost.
Before going to Israel, Francis will stop in the West Bank city of Bethlehem to celebrate a Mass in Manger Square and tour the Church of the Nativity, Jesus’ traditional birthplace.
The visit will show “the whole world” that they should come to visit, said Rula Ma’ayah, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of tourism. Tourism accounts for about 13 percent of Palestinian GDP, and more than 90 percent of visitors are Christians, she said.
“The borders are still controlled by the Israelis,” Ma’ayah said in an interview in her Bethlehem office. “Many Christian pilgrims would like to come, but maybe they are, not afraid, but not encouraged to come.”
--With assistance from Chiara Vasarri in Rome.
To contact the reporter on this story: Nadine Skoczylas in Jerusalem at firstname.lastname@example.org To contact the editors responsible for this story: James Ludden at email@example.com Mark Williams, Amy Teibel
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