Israel Ministry of Tourism Reports 40 Percent Increase in U.S. Christian Visitors

Nearly 1.8 million of the 3 million tourists who visited Israel last year were Christians, the Israel Ministry of Tourism reported Thursday.

And while the number of Christian visitors from Eastern Europe and Africa increased significantly over the past eight years, figures dropped for visitors from Western Europe and Asia.

Furthermore, from 2000 to 2008, there was a 40 percent increase in Christian visitors from the United States, the ministry reported.

The newly released figures come less than two weeks before Christians worldwide celebrate Easter and about two months after the Ministry of Tourism launched a NIS 26 million (USD $6.4 million) advertising campaign that aims to present Israel as a safe destination for tourists following the country's deadly three-week offense against Hamas militants in Gaza earlier this year.

According to the Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper, the first stage of the campaign targeted Germany, Russia, Italy and France while later stages were to target countries including Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. The ministry has also been actively trying to recruit tourists from South Korea, Poland, Brazil and China.

Over the past two years, Israel has reportedly witnessed record-breaking tourism numbers, and set a new record for tourists from the United States in 2008. A notable proportion of the success has been attributed to the support of U.S. Christians, who are arguably Israel's strongest and most vocal supporters in the world. According to the Ministry of Tourism, Christians make up one-third of American tourists that visit Israel, second only to American Jews.

To overcome the negative effects on incoming tourism of the global economic crisis and the fighting in the Gaza Strip earlier this year that left more than 1,300 dead, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism is expected to continue reaching out to U.S. Christian leaders in churches, ministries, and the media as part of its "Visit Israel – You'll Never Be the Same" ad campaign, which has so far been credited for producing record Christian response.

Featuring well-known Christian personalities such as Jack Hayford and Kay Arthur, the campaign speaks to the life-changing experience of visiting Israel, according to Tourism Ministry officials.

"For Christians, visiting Israel is not merely a tourism experience," the ministry states in its website, "it is a journey of faith."

"I am constantly meeting Christians who tell me how dramatically their visits to Israel have transformed their understanding of scripture, and how dramatically visiting Jerusalem and the Galilee transformed their understanding of the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth," it adds.

In 2007, more than 500,000 tourists visited Israel from the United States alone – more than twice the number of the second-largest group, which was from France.

And the Ministry of Tourism doesn't expect to see any slowdown in the future.

"Something about sailing on the Sea of Galilee, walking the streets of Jerusalem, and viewing the empty tomb creates an eternal change of heart and spirit," says Arie Sommer, Israel Commissioner of Tourism for North and South America.

"You can sense God's presence there," Sommer adds.

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