The Holy Land enjoyed a flood of visitors last year, which benefited Israelis and Palestinians alike.
It was a record year for tourism in Israel thanks to a lull in violence. There were 3.45 million visitors in 2010, 14 percent more than the previous record two years ago.
Mark Feldman, who heads the Israeli travel agency Zion Tours, says tourism is booming.
“More and more flights… that’s the biggest reason we are breaking 3 million for the first time,” said Feldman. “We have charter flights from London, from Copenhagen, all over. We have conferences, congresses, delegations. It’s bringing in $20 billion of revenue.”
Most of the visitors were Jews and Evangelical Christians. Some 625,000 Americans came, more than any other country.
Richard Martin of Atlanta, Georgia said he decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, because the security situation has improved.
“It’s wonderful being in Israel, just knowing that you’re in the place where Jesus walked and lived and ministered for the three years. And we feel perfectly safe,” said Martin.
Many Christian tourists are also visiting two biblical towns under Palestinian control, Bethlehem and Jericho, both of which welcomed a record number of people in 2010. Some 1.5 million tourists visited Jesus’ traditional birthplace in Bethlehem, 50 percent more than the previous year.
Bethlehem businessman Ibrahim Salah says it is a boost to the Palestinian economy.
“We want business,” said Salah. “This is what we want, you know, to bring food to the table to our children and our families. I mean when you have lots of people then usually you have good business.”
But the boom in tourism is fragile, especially because the Middle East peace process is deadlocked over Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements. Israelis and Palestinians are well aware that in the recent past, eruptions of violence have scared the tourists away.