Holy Land Plans for Millennium

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NEW YORK -- Israel intends to be the "official destination of the millennium," according to its minister of tourism, Moshe Katsav.

Visitors who come to observe the turn of the millennium in the Holy Land will attend not so much a social event as a historical and religious one, he said.

Whereas preparations are being made in major cities around the world for New Year's Eve 1999, Israel is conscious of its identity as the Holy Land, the place where Jesus lived 2,000 years ago.

The Old City"We have an obligation to give all [necessary] facilities to the Christian world for the historic year," he said.

Katsav said there is unprecedented mutual respect among the world's three major monotheistic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- for the first time in 2,000 years.

And for the first time in two millennia, he said, holy places are open to anyone from any religion, a feat accomplished after Israel won the 1967 war and reunited Jerusalem under its sovereignty.

Katsav said he met recently with the pope, who called Jews Christianity's "older brothers" and expressed "a deep warmth" toward the Jewish state. The minister also said he has met with other leaders of Christian denominations to optimize scheduling and to handle an expected 4.5 million visitors during the period, 3 million of whom are expected to be Christian pilgrims, almost triple the annual figures for that segment.

Katsav said $300 million already has been spent to prepare for the increase, and a similar amount is earmarked for the pilgrimage period.

In addition, the government has promised to provide whatever is needed in the way of security, he said. An operations room has been created to coordinate plans, and the government will establish a Web site to provide tour operators up-to-date information on facilities, he said.

According to Shabtai Shay, the ministry's director general, several specific issues are being addressed.

The expansion of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv is being discussed. Also under study is a system by which security procedures would begin with the computer-recorded purchase of a ticket, thereby cutting processing time at the airport from 30 seconds to 10.

Shay said improved access to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City is a problem that shows how complicated Christian tourism can be: The church is shared by four denominations and needs an additional exit, but getting the denominations to agree to a change is nearly impossible.

A capacity study has helped them understand, however, that not everyone will be able to get into the church to see its five Stations of the Cross unless something is done, he said.

Shay also explained that hotel occupancy levels are down to 58% (from 66% last year) due to decreased visitor levels but also because a construction boom has created more rooms. In 1997, there were 34,000 hotel rooms in the country; now there are 40,000. The government reported that room rates would be kept at reasonable levels during the pilgrimage period.

Coordination with the Palestinian Authority is ongoing regarding travel to Bethlehem, the primary tourism site under its administration, but it is hampered by the fact that the PA has not had a minister of tourism since the previous office holder died two years ago.

According to Arie Sommer, consul and Israeli commissioner for tourism, North America, a logo has been designed that incorporates the numeral 2000 with the word for peace in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

A promotional campaign carrying the logo will be launched this summer, with the theme "the land where time began."
Israel Ministry of Tourism
Information Center
Phone: (888) 77-ISRAEL or (212) 499-5640
Web: www.goisrael.com
E-mail: [email protected] or [email protected]

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