Israel Readies for Upsurge in Christian Tourists after Pope's Visit

Israel is opening new archaeological sites with Christian significance and enhancing its security measures in anticipation of an increase in Christian tourists after Pope Benedict XVI's visit last week.

Opening on June 4 is the Inn of the Good Samaritan located off the Jerusalem-Dead Sea Highway in the West Bank, the Jerusalem Post reported. And within the next months, tourists will be able to visit a temple based on the Temple of Jerusalem.

The Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria has also built a museum for Jewish, Christian and Samaritan mosaics – the first of its kind – in Israel. Christians will be allowed to hold service inside the museum.

And for the first time in years, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has opened the site at the border of Jordan where tradition says John the Baptist baptized Jesus.

"We expect hundreds of thousands of people will come over the coming year to visit these new sites," said Dr. Itzik Magen, chief archeologist for the Civil Administration, to the Post.

Nearly 1.8 million of the 3 million tourists who visited Israel in 2008 were Christians, the Israel Ministry of Tourism reported in April. The number of tourists from the United States was the highest number ever recorded. About a third of American tourists that visited Israel are Christians, which is second only to American Jews.

Annually, the largest Christian event, which also may be the largest annual tourism event for Israel, is the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles. The Israeli Globes newspaper had estimated in 2007 that the event would bring in some $15-18 million to the local economy and book over 16,000 hotel room nights.

But the visit from Pope Benedict XVI to the town of Nazareth, where tradition holds Jesus grew up, is expected to boost Christian tourist numbers even higher this year.

Benedict, during his trip last week, had said he wanted to walk in Jesus' footsteps. He did so as photographers snapped shots of him experiencing the Holy Land firsthand. The photos were plastered on newspapers and Web sites around the world.

Last week's Holy Land trip was the first for Benedict as pope. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had visited the Holy Land in 2000.