As an Israeli living in Israel, I don’t often have the opportunity to visit the Palestinian Territories. So, when I received an invitation recently to accompany Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now Middle East Quartet Representative, on a visit to Christian holy sites in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, I immediately said “Yes!”
I believe it’s critical for Israelis and Palestinians to further cooperation, especially when it comes to joint tourism. After all, we share the holiest sites on earth!
And for me, as a tourism professional, it’s essential to experience, first hand, the beauty and history of the ancient cites in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. How can I recommend to Christians worldwide what the Holy Land has to offer if I haven’t experienced the sites myself?
So, travel pass in hand, I joined Mr. Blair on a day tour of the Nativity route from Nazareth to Bethlehem, an ancient trail which literally winds through the pages of the Bible. We planned to learn about joint Israeli-Palestinian tourism efforts. Logistics, after all, is one of the most critical issues facing tour operators.
Our first stop was Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus. Known today as “the Arab capital of Israel,” the population is made up predominantly of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel of mixed Christian and Muslim heritage and is a center of Christian pilgrimage. We took in the many shrines commemorating biblical events and Mr. Blair met with the mayor and other local leaders to discuss tourism and the city’s request for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Nazareth’s private sector, along with the Israeli Government, is investing in the city’s tourism infrastructure. Nazareth now boasts several excellent restaurants, new hotels, and improved signage and roads. In May 2011, Israel’s Minister of Tourism, Staz Meseznikov, announced plans to invest an additional $3.5M to enhance the tourist infrastructure in Nazareth and boost the cultural and leisure offerings in the Galilee city. It is an important beginning.
Quartet Representative Tony Blair greeting residents on the streets in Nazareth Photo courtesy: Office of Quartet Rep Tony Blair
The ancient walkways of Nazareth’s Old City are clean and friendly. We walked the old market streets and were treated to the beauty of the Church of the Annunciation, the Church of St. Gabriel and the White Mosque. The Old City has a variety of tourist accommodations, including an Arab Christian home known as the Fauzi Azar Inn, now a guesthouse catering primarily to youngertravelers.
Next we were off to the new Jalameh checkpoint, which opened in October 2009 and serves the Gilboa-Jenin area. It is essential to facilitating much of the area’s trade. Jalameh has spurred economic development in the area. Traffic is up over 500 percent [since when?] and over 2,000 vehicles cross daily. Tourism officials are very eager to facilitate access and tourism; tour buses can pass through very quickly, provided they coordinate their route a day ahead. Currently, however, only some 70 buses use the crossing each month, most of them transporting Arab Israeli visitors.
Jalamaye Border Crossing near Nazareth Credit: Travelujah
From Jalameh we drove south into the Palestinian Territories to the Haddad Resort Village outside of Jenin. The 80-room property lies about 3 km. from Jenin in a picturesque area surrounded by olive trees. The expansive resort boasts a large pool, an amusement park, conference facilities, a museum, and first class hotel rooms. The governor of Jenin welcomed us and joined us for lunch. Speaking with the owner I learned that the resort was frequented by many Israeli Arabs. His hope is that his clientele will come to include visitors from all over the world as well as international NGOs and other organizations looking for a unique venue for their seminars and annual meetings.
Haddad Village Resort near Jenin Photo courtesy: Travelujah.com
By far the most exciting part of the day occurred as we continued to the village of Burq’in. The small historic Palestinian town is situated west of Jenin and has about 7,400 residents, most of them Muslim. The hilly agricultural village is home to the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, considered the fourth or fifth oldest church and one of the holiest in the country and the world.
Ancient cave where lepers were quarantined inside Burq’in church. Photo credit: Travelujah.com
According to Christian tradition, Jesus came through Burq’in on his way to Jerusalem from Nazareth when he heard cries coming from within the village. The pleas for help were coming from 10 lepers who were quarantined in an underground cave, a common practice for people afflicted with this disease. According to Luke 17:11-19 Jesus encountered them, passed his hand on their faces and they were immediately healed.
“Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’ When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.”
Church of St. George in Burq’in Photo: Travelujah.com
Because of this miracle, the church, which was built by Saint Helena in the 4th Century A.D., became a station for Christian pilgrims en route to Jerusalem and Nazareth. According to the local guardian of the church, who led us around the newly renovated holy site, the church is also a place of worship for the village’s Christian Greek Orthodox community and holds a weekly mass. Groups are welcome to visit the newly renovated church and to hold mass there. Access can be arranged by advanced notice.
Tourism development is crucial for both the Israeli and Palestinian economies, as it provides livelihood to tens of thousands of people and stimulates economic development opportunities. As the Quartet representative, Mr. Blair is focused on furthering tourism development to provide an immediate and direct economic benefit for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Despite the record numbers of tourists to Israel last year – some 3.45 million – Israel and the Palestinian Territories lagged well behind Jordan (6 million tourists), Syria (6.5 million) and Egypt (some 15 million). And this, despite the fact that the Holy Land is the cradle of faith and offers numerous unique travel experiences.
The Office of Quartet Representative Tony Blair has created a Holy Land tourism committee (of which I am a member). The committee is engaged in furthering the overall tourism experience, from improving access to creating programs and joint marketing activities that will benefit both Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Outside the Church of St. George in Burq’in. Photo Credit: Office of Quartet Rep Tony Blair
In a meeting in Jerusalem late last week, our Holy Land tourism committee agreed that regardless of what happens in the UN we will continuing moving forward with our cooperative efforts on the ground here promoting tourism to both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The reality which people around the world do not realize is that the private sector is successfully working together and we are determined to continue our efforts to do just that. Traveling here is quite safe and there is no doubt that a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a life-changing spiritual experience.
I spoke with Mr. Blair outside the church in Burq’in about the importance of travel and specifically the faith-based travel segment, which represents an $18 billion industry and the fastest growing segment in travel. I shared my concern that many prospective visitors don’t realize that, with proper coordination, a visit to the Holy Land is perfectly safe. He agreed – and promised to do his best to encourage more people of faith to travel here.
“We have to do a better job at promoting this,” he agreed. “We have to get the word out.”
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Elisa Moed is the Founder and CEO of Travelujah (http://www.travelujah.com) an Israel-based Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land. With over 1000 pages of Christian interest articles, expert blogs, visitor experiences, religious travel resources and more, Travelujah helps people to learn about and travel to the Holy Land.