Tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims are expected to arrive in the country over the Christmas holiday, capping a record-breaking year that included 3.5 million tourists, the Tourism Ministry said on Wednesday.
Noting that a 20% increase of Christian visitors is expected over Christmas compared to last year, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin expressed pride in the record numbers of annual visitors.
“Israel invites the faithful from all religions to pray, worship and visit all the holy sites in Israel in freedom and security,” he said.
“I am proud to take this opportunity to announce that this year we have broken all previous records for incoming tourism, and are set to end 2017 with a record 3.5 million tourists – half a million more than the previous record.”
Levin attributed the record growth to the ministry’s ongoing international tourism campaign.
According to the ministry’s statistics, more than half of the 2.9 million tourists in 2016 were Christian, and approximately 120,000 of the tourists who visited last December were Christian pilgrims.
The vast majority of Christian tourists visit Jerusalem, with about 40% visiting Tel Aviv-Jaffa, the ministry said. The most visited sites by Christians included the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jewish Quarter, Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, Mount of Olives, Capernaum, Church of the Annunciation, and City of David.
Anticipating a 20% increase over Christmas, the ministry said it is offering free shuttle service on buses every 30 minutes between Jerusalem and Bethlehem beginning on Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.
“Buses will leave every 30 minutes near the Carta parking lot [opposite Jaffa Gate and near Mamilla Boulevard],” the ministry said.
“The bus will also stop near the entrance to the Mar Elias Monastery, and at the Rosmarin Junction, before continuing via Rachel’s Crossing to Bethlehem and then back again.”
There may be changes to the schedule due to demand.