Travel Weekly reporter Johanna Jainchill is spending a week in Israel. Her third dispatch from the country follows.
Dispatch, Tel Aviv: Religious tourism depends on unwavering faith, and Israel depends on religious tourists.
Here in Israel, often referred to as the Holy Land, so many places that seem plain to the eye -- a wall, a rock, a cave -- have been imbued with a combination of history, faith and time to become among the most significant religious places on Earth.
Pilgrims -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, followers of the B’ahai Faith -- come here in droves every year. Of Israel’s record 3 million tourists last year, 1 million were Christian pilgrims, double the number who visited Israel in 2007.
Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall and the Al Aqsa Mosque are some of the holiest of places. There is also Bethlehem in the West Bank. In Haifa, followers of the B’ahai Faith are expected to visit the towering Shrine of the Bab at least once in their lifetime.
"In Jerusalem, legend endures so strongly in history, you don’t know what is legend and what is history," said Eli Nahmias, director of overseas marketing and tourism projects for the Jerusalem Tourism Authority. "But you don’t argue with tradition."
The advantage for Israel is that religious pilgrims are not nearly as deterred by security issues as other tourists.
The Second Intifada in the early part of this decade took a temporary but drastic toll on Israeli tourism. Despite the torrent of violence, religious pilgrims continued to visit the Holy Land. Christian Evangelists in particular, Nahmias said, kept Israeli tourism alive. "They are the most resilient of religious travelers," he said.
Unlike other Christians, Evangelists are as attached to the Old Testament as they are to the New Testament, Nahmias said. Catholics, for example, will choose Rome if they decide on one pilgrimage, he noted.
Interestingly, Israel is not a religious country. More than half of the population describes itself as secular, and only about 20% calls itself religious.
In Tel Aviv, that secularism is apparent. Most Israelis here do not observe the Jewish Sabbath; nightclubs and restaurants are packed on Friday nights, and families spend Saturdays at the beach and strolling in different neighborhoods.
"People come here and expect that everyone is a rabbi with a beard and people are fighting Arabs in the streets," said Karl Walter, a tour guide who lives Tel Aviv. "It’s not like that. People get to Tel Aviv and they are shocked. But most of Israel is not religious. Jerusalem is the exception."
In Jerusalem, most of the city is closed on the Sabbath, and there is a prevalence of religiously dressed men and women, both Muslim and Jewish, especially in the touristy areas.