After a year of the Holy Land being closed to visitors, the Ministry of Tourism began a pilot program, bringing in a few groups. The first group to arrive was a group of theological students from Missouri led by their Pastor.
Pilot program welcomes Christian pilgrims
On May 20, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism announced that they were opening a pilot program that would permit tour operators to bring a total of 20 groups of vaccinated tourists from the United States, Britain, and Germany. Each tour operator was permitted one group of 5-30 people. The response was stunning as all available slots were sold out within nine minutes of opening for registration.
The first lucky group arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport last Thursday. The group of 12 theology students from Concordia Seminary in Missouri. The trip is a required part of their program, teaching participants to view the Bible within the context of the geography of the Holy Land. The group, led by Pastor Tom Zelt from the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Fremont, California, will be in Israel until June 10.
Pastor Zelt has been in Israel numerous times, leading Christian groups to Israel several times each year, and trains other pastors to become tour leaders in Israel for their own communities.
They were greeted at the airport by Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen who greeted them with flowers.
“Israel is healthy and vaccinated,” Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen told them at the airport. “Restaurants, hotels, concerts, markets, and sporting venues: everything is open.”
“You are the first organized tourist group to visit Israel in over a year,” Farkash-Hacohen said, expressing her hope that they were the sign of many more to come. “Israel is an attractive destination, with unparalleled historic and religious sites sacred to three religions, vibrant cities, amazing food, and warm people. I am sure you will enjoy it all.”
The festivities were quickly followed by less-pleasant yet mandatory PCR tests. As per the guidelines, all of the participants had already been tested within 72-hours of leaving for Israel. As a pilot program, the group will be closely monitored for compliance with Health Ministry guidelines.
“The planning for this group began even before the pandemic,” said Adi Aharoni, CEO of Israel Experts, the tour operator managing the trip. “It is impossible to set up a group like this in just a few days. I asked them if they wanted to cancel or delay the trip like I had already done for so many groups but they said they had faith that it would work out. I told them not to book airplane tickets because they would probably have to cancel them but they booked the flight anyway.”
“I kept refreshing the page to get through as if I was trying to buy tickets for a big rock concert,” Aharoni said. “I got their places in the program and nine minutes later, it was closed.”
Another 19 groups are expected within the next two weeks as part of the pilot program.
Aharoni explained that tourism to Israel represents a special imperative.
“They were packing their bags while rockets were falling on Israel,” Aharoni said. “Pastor Zelt never hesitated. It was clear that they were coming.”
Aharoni praised the Ministry of Tourism for working hard to reopen the country.
“We are struggling with the Ministry of Health,” Aharoni said. “They have strict demands that are not compatible with welcoming tourists and guests.”
Currently, the only people allowed to come from outside Israel are Israeli citizens with passports, businessmen with special permission, people with relatives in Israel, and groups from Birthright.
Christian tourism: essential to Israel
The tourism industry is a vital part of the Israeli economy. Before the pandemic, a record-breaking 4.55 million tourists arrived in Israel in 2019. Christians represent more than half of all incoming tourists. In total, over two million Christians visited Israel in 2013. About 40% of these Christian tourists defined themselves as pilgrims; about 30% said they were in Israel for sightseeing and touring and the remainder for other reasons.