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