Tourism in Israel is on the rise

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JERUSALEM — Tourism in Israel is on the rise, and evangelical Christians are a significant reason why.

"Evangelicals make up an important part of the overall picture," said Paul Manor, the director of Hosting Operations for the Israel Ministry of Tourism (IMOT). IMOT hosted a group of journalists from the Evangelical Press Association (EPA) June 3 to June 11. The ten journalists on the tour represented publications with a combined monthly circulation of almost 400,000 mostly evangelical readers. The tour was part of an ongoing effort by IMOT to promote tourism among evangelicals.

North America is the latest marketing target of IMOT, which plans to spend $11 million to attract more visitors to Israel. Television and print ads will specifically be aimed at the Christian encouraging people to explore the land of the bible and use the catch phrase: "You'll never be the same."

Evangelicals have an attraction to Israel and it's easy to see why. Israel is where Jesus spent most of His life and visitors have the potential to "walk where Jesus walked." Scriptures take on a fresh image as travelers visit such places Nazareth, Bethsaida, the Mount of Olives or take a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.

"Once you've been to Israel, you'll never read the Bible in quite the same way again," said Dr. Barry Leventhal, a professor at Southern Evangelical Seminary, who often leads trips to the country.

Also, evangelicals, for theological, historical, and cultural reasons, are supporters of Israel. "Evangelical Christians have been a strong voice for Israel in the United States," said Dwight Widaman, publisher of the Kansas City MetroVoice and one of the organizers of the EPA trip.

"As a spiritual journey, there is nothing better that a believer could do to embolden their faith," added Widaman. "For Christians, the empty tomb is the ultimate example of God fulfilling His promises throughout the ages."

There are other reasons to go to Israel. As international travel goes, Israel is convenient for Americans. English is a required language in the schools, so most Israelis are fluent. Most roads are excellent, with road signs in English as well as Hebrew and Arabic. Because of kosher requirements, cleanliness standards often exceed those in America. U.S. dollars are accepted at many retail outlets. The semi-arid climate, with little rain, lots of sunshine, and moderate temperatures, takes the complexity out of packing for an extended trip.

All of these benefits are leading to a possible record year for tourism in Israel. Israel had a record 2.4-million visitors in 2000. But a slowing economy in Europe and the U.S.—and violence in Israel in 2001 and 2002—caused visits in the country to plummet.

A rebound began in 2003, and 2006 was on a track to once again crack the 2-million visitor mark - until the war with Lebanon broke out. This year, however, with relative peace in the region and a steadily improving economy, many in the industry say that 2007 could break or come close to previous records.

The increase in tourism reflects what people feel about their safety and security in Israel today.

IMOT has revamped its Web site, which now includes the capability to search and price a trip to Israel, while the trip planner suggests the months of June-July, and September-November as ideal for travel.

Evangelicals are not, of course, the only component to Israeli tourism. Catholic pilgrimages and Jewish tours also play significant roles. Israel has more museums per capita than any nation in the world, and literally thousands of archeological sites, so educational tours are also common.

"But we love evangelicals," said IMOT's Paul Manor. "They bring not only their dollars, but a love for Israel, and they go home and help us tell our story to the world. That's important to us."

EP News contributed to this story.