Middle East looks forward to more religious tourism after pandemic
Despite the cautious optimism expressed by tourism ministries and tour operators in many countries across the region over the summer, COVID-19 persists and the tourism industry across the Middle East is bleeding.
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Some countries, like Israel, do not allow foreign tourists in order to prevent the spread of variants of the virus, while others receive only a fraction of the influx of tourists they received just two years ago. . Nonetheless, Egypt, Jordan and Israel are currently busy preparing for the future, as they invest significant funds and efforts in improving and renovating important religious and heritage sites.
But it remains to be seen whether the Middle East will be successful in attracting religious tourism and realizing the enormous potential of this global trend.
Religious tourism accounts for more than half of all tourism entering Israel. According to the 2019 Israeli Tourism Ministry’s Inbound Tourism Survey, 53.9% of all tourists were Christians, 25.6% Jews, 2.6% of other faiths and 1.4% Muslims, the others n ‘expressing no religious affiliation. Some 18.8% of all incoming tourists defined their visit as a pilgrimage, with around a quarter of all tourists arriving for sightseeing and sightseeing.
However, identifying religious tourism in itself becomes a difficult task, as tourists often combine both leisure and visiting religious sites.
“Promoting tourism for Christians, Muslims and Jews around the world in the Holy Land is one of the most important tasks in my role as Minister of Tourism. Religious tourism builds bridges between peoples and countries, strengthens our international and diplomatic ties and is an important anchor point for inbound tourism, ”Yoel Razvozov, Israeli Minister of Tourism, told The Media Line, highlighting the growing importance of religious trips to Israel. tourism industry.
“The Ministry of Tourism will continue to invest many efforts and resources to strengthen, improve and make important tourist centers accessible to all religions. I am convinced that the day when tourists are allowed to enter the country, we will be able to welcome here, in our beautiful country, hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world, ”said Razvozov.
“Israel has amazing beaches, but you have to keep in mind that they are everywhere – in Greece, Dubai and Egypt. However, it is difficult for other countries to compete with the abundance of significant religious sites, ”George Horesh, a seasoned tour guide and owner of Alma-Israel travel agency, told The Media Line.
“I believe there is great potential for religious tourism. In fact, despite the prognosis that predicted the decline in religiosity, what is happening is quite the opposite. Religiosity is on the rise in many parts of the world; that is why Israel, along with Jordan and Egypt, are trying to attract these tourists, ”he said.
Horesh believes that, to be successful in this task, Israel must invest in the repair and renovation of many important Christian sites that have been neglected for years by the respective Israeli governments.
“The sites of Tiberius and Capernaum must be treated urgently. The roads, the guest facilities, the entrance – today it just doesn’t look good. In addition, tourist guides should receive better training; in my day guides followed a meticulous teaching on Christian and Muslim theology, whereas today the training is very short and few are really well informed on these matters. To lead a group of pilgrims, guides must also address the nuances of theology, not just repeating the facts, ”he said.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism told The Media Line that “during the period of the pandemic, the ministry and other agencies have invested heavily in improving infrastructure for religious tourism.”
Sites that have received improvements include: Megiddo National Park; the multimedia presentation at the Saxum Visitor Center; excavations in Magdala; new trails accessible at the Garden Tomb; the northern ramparts walk in the old city of Jerusalem; excavations in Korazim National Park; Emmaus and Korazim-Capernaum trails; and spaces for prayer services in national parks such as Banias, the Good Samaritan, Avdat and Kursi. An extension of the Western Wall tunnels, exposing new archaeological excavations, will also open soon, according to the ministry.
Jordan has suffered a severe blow to its economy as a result of the pandemic, leading to the closure of more than 60% of the country’s travel agencies. But the kingdom wasted no time, investing funds in restoring and promoting religious sites, hoping tomorrow will be better than today.
“The baptism committee, which is managed by Prince (Ghazi bin) Muhammad, goes to great lengths to preserve the entire baptism site. The DOA (Department of Antiquities) recently announced (upgrading) the Zoar Cave site in the Dead Sea where Lot and his daughters lived and sought refuge after Sodom and Gomorrah, ”Jordanian tour operator Sami Tawil told The Media Line.
In addition, Jordan is currently discussing the possibility of opening up the predominantly Sunni Islamic country to Shia pilgrims. The tombs of Jaafar, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and brother of Caliph Ali, who is said to be the first leader of the Shiites, have long been beyond the reach of Shiite religious tourism.
In Egypt, in recent years, the government has invested heavily in the restoration of Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy sites. The old Nabi Daniel Mosque in Alexandria, as well as the Shaarei Shamayim Synagogue in Cairo have been restored, and Egypt recently announced plans to restore and renovate the shrines and tombs of the Prophet Muhammad’s family across the country. in order to support and promote religious tourism.
“In addition, it is planned to generate Christian tourism in Egypt, where the Holy Family (of Jesus, Mary and Joseph) lived after fleeing the persecution of King Herod. The government is now investing in The Holy Family Trail, a path that connects many stops in Cairo, the south and Sinai, ”Cairo-based expert and scholar Amr Zakaria told The Media Line.
The first stops on the Sentier de la Sainte-Famille were completed in January. The route will eventually include 25 stops.
Between economic needs and security concerns
While it is clear that countries in the Middle East are working hard to attract as many tourists as possible, even the prospect of profit is sometimes not enough to allay security concerns and suspicions.
Although the Abrahamic Accords which were signed by Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September 2020 included a section stating that “all peace-loving Muslims would be allowed to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque, and others Jerusalem holy places be open to peaceful believers of all religions, ”the influx of Muslim tourism to Israel is not yet visible. In times of a pandemic, all forms of tourism remain very limited, and it still appears that Israel is not about to be inundated with tourists from Muslim countries with which it has no diplomatic relations (however , Indonesian Christian tourists have been coming to Israel for many years).
In addition, there is fierce opposition to Iranian Shia religious tourism in countries like Jordan and Egypt. Many Jordanians have expressed their opposition to the idea of opening the country to Iranian tourism for reasons of security and faith.
Many Egyptians share this point of view. “Any tourist can visit our mosques – Al-Azhar, Al-Husseim or AlHakim (mosques which also have religious significance for Shiites), but Egypt never wanted Shiite pilgrimages to these sites. During the Muslim Brotherhood era, the Iranians suggested launching religious tourism to these sites, but even then Egypt refused, lest they proselytize and promote the Shia faith here. Zakaria said.
Cooperation, cooperation, cooperation
All experts agree that cooperation between Egypt, Jordan and Israel is important for promoting religious tourism and for countries to benefit from an influx of tourists.
“In the 90s, there was a global agreement that included the three countries. I think we could all benefit from it, ”Zakaria said.
“Jordan is part of the Holy Land, and most of the time is sold as an extension to both countries, so yes, and there are always packages that include at least two countries,” Tawil said.
“There are tour operators, mainly in source countries like South America and India, which market multi-destination packages including Jordan and Egypt,” according to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.
Work on the ancient sites revered by millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews around the world will continue, and tour guides, drivers, translators and hoteliers will patiently wait for the moment the pandemic subsides and shrines, churches and mosques will again be filled with multilingual and multiethnic tourists.