Major Christian tourism to Israel kept waiting by global pandemic

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Ben Gurion Airport during the coronavirus pandemic (Photo: Twitter)

From ancient Temple times, to the Crusades, to the modern rebirth of the nation with its vibrant and diverse culture, it is clear why Israel is a destination for travelers from around the world.

Christians particularly love to experience the land where Jesus and many other biblical figures walked. It is common for Christian visitors to view themselves as pilgrims, returning year after year.

Many of these tourists return with groups from megachurches and ministries from the United States to Southeast Asia and beyond. Sar-El Tours for example, hosts regular tours for large ministries and pastors from America such as Chuck Swindoll of Insight for Living, Kay Arthur of Precepts Ministries International, Calvary Chapel, Liberty University, Benny Hinn Ministries, Christ for all Nations (CFAN) and Jewish Voice Ministries International (JVMI). Other regulars include Singapore’s Joseph Prince of New Creation Church (NCC) and El Rey Jesús (ERJ) with Pastor Moldanado, known on Latin American television. Even former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee brings Christian groups to Israel.

The Demand for Christian Tourism

The last several years in particular have seen an increase in Israeli tourism, reaching record numbers several years in a row.

“The year 2013 was Israel’s record year for incoming tourism with 3.54 million visitor entries,” the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. “Christians represented more than half of all incoming tourists […] In total, over two million Christians visited Israel in 2013.” (mfa.gov.il)

Five years later, in 2018, that number was up to about 2.5 million. According to Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, “[2018] saw an increase in tourist arrivals of 13 percent compared to 2017, and 38 percent  compared to 2016 … more than 4 million tourists in a year.” (Times of Israel)

Unfortunately, the records expected in 2020 will not be set. There are no tour groups that would typically be found flocking to the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane or Masada.

This year, instead, is setting records of another kind. Starting in late March, tour groups were sent back home, postponed or rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dates for reopening the borders to non-residents into Israel have been pushed back several times. Currently, no new date has been announced.

Preparing to Welcome Visitors Again

“What we know is that there is a huge demand and thirst to come back to the land,” said Sar-El Tours General Manager Uri Avrouskine. “Once the skies will open, the prosperity of the last three to four years is expected to increase. Everyone is just waiting for a green light.”

Meanwhile, the travel industry here is readying itself for an influx of visitors whenever the borders will reopen. Sar-El is currently equipping its buses with special filters that purify the air from all kinds of viruses, including COVID-19. They are also working with their suppliers and contacts in Israel to make sure each one complies with safety regulations for safe tourism. As soon as the country opens, precautions will have already been put in place to welcome visitors once more, in a secure manner.

As many are waiting to come back to Israel or to visit for the first time, readers are welcome to visit the major sites of Israel virtually at www.sarelacademy.com until travel in and around the Holy Land is once again permitted.