“No Shopping!” guide Nadav Kersh admonished his charges as they entered the crowded Old City of Jerusalem. “I mean it. No shopping! It’s just too easy to get lost here.”
Kersh was guiding a group of tour operators from the U.S., U.K. and South Africa on a whirlwind tour of the holy places in Jerusalem. Simultaneously, other tour groups were listening to guides speaking Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German. They are part of a group of 160 tour operators invited by the Ministry of Tourism for a week-long trip to Israel.
The day began at the Israel Museum, and a visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls housed in a special building shaped like a giant white Hershey’s kiss.
“Scrolls are like money,” Kersh told them. “The more they get used, the more worn out they get. Anyone know which book of the Bible is the most popular?”
“Psalms?” asks Tony Lock from the UK.
“Right!” answers Kersh. “Even today, if you go on a bus in Israel you see old ladies reading Psalms. Here you’ll see one of the oldest versions of Psalms.”
After a quick circuit of the museum, the tour operators were given a preview of an upcoming exhibition on the Roman king of Judea, Herod the Great, who ruled the area from 40 BC to 4 BC and has been described both as a genius and a madman.
“It will be the first exhibition in the world about Herod,” David Mevorah, the museum’s archaeology curator, told the group. “It took us 40 years to find his tomb, but that convinced us to do the exhibit. Herod was a massive builder in stone and the [Second Jewish] Temple [in Jerusalem] was his greatest project.”
After a detailed PowerPoint presentation, the group headed off to the Old City of Jerusalem. At the fifth station of the Via Dolorosa, the path that Christians believe Jesus walked on the way to crucifixion, Kersh points out a stone handprint, which tradition says belonged to Jesus. Many in the group touch their hand to the stone.
“To me, this whole city has a special feeling,” Phyllis Brown told The Media Line about her first trip to Israel. “I’m really very impressed. Jerusalem is simply breathtaking. I expected it to be flatter and more desert-like, but it is so pretty.”
Brown, from Santa Barbara, California, has sent about 10 clients on trips to Israel each year, but now hopes to increase that.
“I definitely feel more capable now to organize a group,” she says.
The trip came just a few days after the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after eight days of heavy fighting. Brown says that while she was not afraid to visit Israel, her adult children were concerned and asked her to cancel her trip.
“There was about a week when I didn’t hear anything from the Tourism Ministry and I wasn’t sure if the trip was on,” Brown says. “But within 24 hours of the cease-fire they sent a barrage of emails making sure we were still coming.”
Another tour operator, Douglas Kostwoski from Travel People in Miami, Florida, agreed.
“As soon as I saw the cease-fire was holding, I started packing,” he told The Media Line. “I already send about 100 people each year to Israel, but my mind keeps racing with new things to add to the itinerary and what I’ll tell potential clients.”
Israeli tourism officials said the group’s visit became even more important after the fighting in Gaza.
“There is no doubt that Operation Pillar of Defense affected incoming tourism,” Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said. “But we are already taking steps toward swift rehabilitation, minimizing damage and renewing the momentum of incoming tourism over the last three years.”
Tourism is a key economic sector in Israel. In 2010, some 3.45 million tourists visited Israel and 2012 was set to bring even more. Officials are also targeting previously untapped markets, including India and China. In 2009, according to the Ministry of Tourism, the sector brought $3.3 billion into Israel’s economy. More than half of the tourists visiting are Christian, while 40 percent are Jewish.
“There are some church groups coming from Mumbai,” Sarah ReSello, from Go Beyond Travels India, told The Media Line. “But we will be trying to get them to also go to the Red Sea resort of Eilat and the Dead Sea.”
It is impossible to visit Israel without some talk of politics. Tour guide Kersh told the visitors how the Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters – Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim – but how the residents of the quarters are also mixed.
“Take the Muslim Quarter, for example, which is the largest with 20,000 inhabitants,” he said. “You can have Christians living there, and even some Jews. If you see Israeli flags there, it means that a Jewish Israeli bought the house and he wants to annoy his neighbors.”
“Are all four quarters safe?” Kostowski asks.
“Yes,” replies Kersh. “The whole country is safe.”