Jerusalem — Israel is inviting tourists to retrace the footsteps of the Virgin Mary, officials said Tuesday, in the latest campaign to bring Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.
A new itinerary developed by the Tourism Ministry helps tour operators plan pilgrimages to sites where the mother of Jesus Christ lived and traveled. They include her birthplace near Nazareth in northern Israel, as well as Mary’s Spring and the Tomb of the Virgin near Jerusalem.
Tourism officials said Israel has long facilitated pilgrimages for Christians to travel in Jesus’ footsteps — spanning from the sites of his crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee, where he is said to have walked on water. Working with Palestinians, Israel also facilitates visits to Bethlehem, the West Bank village of Jesus’ birth.
The Virgin Mary itinerary includes holy sites in the West Bank as well, including Bethlehem. Tourism officials said they work closely with the Palestinian on tourism matters, though this itinerary was not specifically coordinated with the Palestinians.
In 2010, 69 percent of Israel’s almost 3.5 million tourists were Christians — mostly Catholics. Now Israel is encouraging return visits by those who have already made their first pilgrimage.
Friar Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Roman Catholic Church’s custodian of the Holy Land, said that for the faithful, being able to touch and see biblical sites firsthand is a transformative experience.
“For us Christians, the Holy Land is the physical connection with the life of Jesus,” he said. “But we cannot talk about the life of Jesus without talking about his mother, the Holy Virgin.”…
Tourism professionals said Christian pilgrimages help Israel both economically and politically, because visitors tend to become supporters of Israel afterward.
Creating new travel products and marketing them specifically to Christians is the surest way to achieve that, said Elisa Leopold Moed, a Jew who founded Travelujah, a social network that promotes Christian tourism to Israel.
“The Christians feel passionate” about the sites so central to their faith, Moed said. “It’s burning inside of them.”