The Israeli Tourism Ministry announced on Wednesday that a record number of Christian pilgrims are expected to give a welcome boost to the economy by visiting the Holy Land for Christmas, finishing up a record-breaking year of tourism for Israel.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin released a statement saying that in the next few weeks, 20 percent more Christian tourists are expected than visited last year.
“Israel invites the faithful from all religions to pray, worship and visit all the holy sites in Israel in freedom and security,” Levin said. “I am proud to take this opportunity to announce that this year we have broken all previous records for incoming tourism, and are set to end 2017 with a record 3.5 million tourists – half a million more than the previous record.”
According to the ministry’s statistics, more than half of the 2.9 million tourists in 2016 were Christian, including approximately 120,000 who visited Israel last December. Of the total Christian tourists last year, 38 percent identified as Catholic, 28 percent as Protestants, and 28 percent as Orthodox. Among the Protestants, 75 percent identified as Evangelicals, comprising 13 percent of all tourists. 23 percent of all visitors to Israel defined the purpose of their visit as ‘a pilgrimage’.
In light of the anticipated wave of holiday tourists, the ministry said it is offering free shuttle service on buses every 30 minutes between Jerusalem and Bethlehem beginning on Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.
“Buses will leave every 30 minutes near the Carta parking lot [opposite Jaffa Gate and near Mamilla Boulevard],” the ministry said in a statement. “The bus will also stop near the entrance to the Mar Elias Monastery, and at the Rosmarin Junction, before continuing via Rachel’s Crossing to Bethlehem and then back again.”
Most Christian tourists visit Jerusalem, with about 40 percent visiting Tel Aviv-Jaffa, the ministry said. The most visited sites by Christians included the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jewish Quarter, Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, Mount of Olives, Capernaum, Church of the Annunciation, and City of David.
Last week, the Muslim mayor of Nazareth threatened to cancel Christmas events in response to President Trump’s acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but he later rescinded that decision. On Saturday, the city will host a parade and firework display. A Mass will be held the following day in the Basilica of the Annunciation.