Monday, December 9, 2013

Religious Sites keep Tourism Industry afloat in Israel

By: Anna Rumer
Produced & Edited by: Holly Moody

For the Abrahamic religions, Israel is more than a country; it is in the heart of its people and its past, filled with important holy sites. Not only do these sites bring Jews, Christians, and Muslims from all around the world, but also the lifeblood of Israel: the tourism industry.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2011, 2.8 million tourists left their home countries and traveled to Israel in search of adventure, excitement, and religious fulfillment, spending on average $1371 and contributing an estimated $8.3 billion to the economy.

Cave of the Patriarchs in Israel (via: NJJ)
Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism has reported 62 million tourist arrivals, This, with the increased ease of international travel that has come with greater technology, has led to multi-billion dollar industry.

A large part of this industry revolves around religious tourism. Israel is home to many holy sites for  religions,such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Political and ethnic tension within Israel and the Palestinian Territories between the Arab and Jewish population leads to violence an unrest on both sides, and the religious claim to Israel only intensifies this. However, the tourism continues, albeit with diminished Muslim representation.

Many industries, such as travel agencies, rely on this religious tourism, making 29 percent of the total tourism output from these sites, according to the ICBS.

The Obed Project

Jeanne Corwin is a part of this industry. However, instead of turning a profit while showing tourists the religious significance of Israel, her non-profit organization aims to connect Christians to Israel at the lowest price possible. The Obed Project,operates with the help of donors, to help lower the price for those wishing to go to Israel.

“We do not actually make money from the tours," Corwin said."We want to help facilitate people being able to come.”

Another thing that separates The Obed Project from a conventional tourism agency is its focus on service. All trips are developed around a service project such as dance camps and soccer camps that allow for the tourists to help Israelis in need while developing a deep connection with the country and its people.

 “We want our groups to interact with the people who actually live there so that they can more easily discern the truth about Israel and their relationship with Israel,” Corwin said. “Our members leave something of themselves in the land.”

While the struggle to keep prices low and maintain a sustainable living for herself and her family is ongoing, Corwin would never choose another path for herself. 

“This has become an addiction for me."  "I cannot imagine not sharing Israel with others," she said.

Not only is the experience necessary for Corwin, she believes it is necessary for the tourists themselves. 

“I think that owning our Hebrew roots is essential for every believing person,” she said. “How can you possibly understand the tree you have been grafted into without understanding the roots that feed you?”

Christianity & Israel 

Christians echo the strong feelings felt by Corwin throughout the world, however some place less importance on making this pilgrimage to Israel. While Pastor Claude Ezagouri, leader of a congregation in Tiberias, considers the land he lives in the chosen land of the Christian God, he doesn’t believe that visiting is an important goal for every Christian.

“The Bible calls [Israel] holy … but it is God who makes it holy, and there is nothing in it which is holy in itself,” he said. “However if visiting these sites helps you to get a fuller view of God's word and his expectation for us then it can be a blessing.”

While the Israeli Ministry of Tourism reports that the majority of religious tourists, at 54 percent, are Christians, about 3-5 percent of tourists are Muslim.

Muslims & The Pilgrimage to Israel

According to the Israel Ministry of Tourism the Dome of the Rock is a shrine for Islam's third most holy site. (via: Israel Ministry of Tourism)
While Muslims and Arab Muslims can feel uneasy traveling to Israel due to the Palestinian conflict and anti-Arab sentiment heard in Israeli political rhetoric, many travel every year to visit their holy sites. Many Muslim sites, such as the Dome of the Rock, can only be visited by Muslims so as to maintain their holiness.

While a religious pilgrimage to Israel may be desirable to many Muslims, the restrictions in movement and difficulties in obtaining an Israeli visa as an Arab deter some would be tourists.

"In another world, I would visit Israel and see the [Dome of the Rock]," said Muslim student Reda Hassan. "But the passport restrictions...they will not let you into some countries with an Israeli stamp."

He agreed, however, the Israeli holds a holy place in Muslim hearts. "It is just as much a muslim place as not," he said. 

Jews & Israel 

Jews also represent a significant 39 percent of annual visitors.

Rabbi Danielle Leshaw has formed a deep connection to Israel, having traveled there since 1995. While living less of a tourist’s existence in Israel since her family’s decision to spend summers in Tel Aviv five years ago, Leshaw still finds religious significance in visiting holy sites.

“Jews need to be in Israel, they need to be experiencing it and learning about it and feeling it. Building a relationship with it, going back as often as possible,” she said. 

Leshaw also acknowledges the holy feeling of Israel, but views it differently than Ezagouri. I think that it’s only there because people continue to believe in it and contribute to it and create a sacred space by their own prayers and their own actions in that space.”

Even for the less religious, this aura can still be felt. “I’m not extremely religious,” said Alex Felser, a two-time tourist to Israel. “But being there is an emotional experience.”

Whether for religious, recreational, or a mixture of both purposes, a trip to Israel can provide an excellent adventure as well as a view back into the past. “You think about all of the history that happened there and the wars that have taken place,” Felser said. “You kind of have to look around for a second and take it all in.”

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