JERUSALEM, Israel – Israel’s Tourism Ministry recently announced the number of visitors is up by 42 percent from the same period in 2009, making 2010 a potentially record year.
Many of these tourists are evangelical Christians who say they gain a deeper understanding of the Bible after experiencing firsthand the sites described in the Scriptures.
Like many Christian tour groups, New Life Providence Church of Virginia Beach, Virginia, began their Holy Land pilgrimage in the Galilee, where Jesus started his earthly ministry.
“Who knows Jesus might have been stilling the storm right in this very spot,” Pastor Dan Backens told his group on board a boat on the Sea of Galilee. “It certainly wouldn’t be unlikely,” he said.
For Pastor Dan, visiting Israel means a lot.
“As a pastor, what I enjoy about coming to Israel is first of all to see the excitement in the parishioners who come with me or the guests who can come along in our tour group to see the Bible come alive for them and what God does in their own heart through their trip here to Israel,” he told CBN News.
Debbie Carter waited 38 years for her chance to visit Israel.
“I have cried and wept and leapt for joy the whole time I’ve been here – to see the many spots where my Lord walked,” Carter said.
Many Christians feel the same way.
“It’s a life-changing experience…a life changing experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” said Dee Chavis.
The group also visited Capernaum, home of the Apostle Peter, and the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount.
From there, they headed south to the Dead Sea and Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
Walking Where Jesus Walked
One of the most meaningful experiences for many Christians is walking where Jesus walked, such as the path from the Mount of Olives, with its panoramic view of the city, which the Bible describes as “a Sabbath’s day walk to Jerusalem.
At the Garden of Gethsemane, visitors ponder what it must have been like for Jesus as he prayed “not my will, but yours be done” the night before he was crucified. For some, it brought home the lesson of the agony of Jesus that on that fateful night.
“I don’t ever have to be in the Garden of Gethsemane pleading before the Father because Jesus did it already,” Julie Vaught said.
Pastor Dan’s group also walked along the Via Dolorosa, the traditional site where Jesus carried his cross on the way to Calvary. Along the way, they worshipped in St. Ann’s Church, with its renowned acoustics.
Tour guide Erez Bar-David has led thousands of Christians to historical sites throughout the land of the Bible.
“People go through a very, very deep experience, spiritual, emotional experience when they are here. I think it’s just this deeper understanding of Scripture,” Bar-David said.
“When you read the Scriptures, you’re kind of looking at it in black and white, but when you come here, it really just jumps off the page, it makes the Bible jump off the page and you’re able to see really in color. You’re like wow, this is real!” This is really what our faith is built upon,” Dana Williams said.
But is Israel really a safe place to visit? Some people hesitate to come because of what they read in the media.
“If I could dispel any kind of fears about someone travelling to Israel – you know the media sometimes portrays the threat of terrorism and unrest, [but] Israel is probably the safest tourist destination there is because everyone here, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, Jew, non-Jew, they want tourism,” Pastor Dan said.
More than Tourists
Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov sees evangelical Christians as much more than just tourists.
“You are not the guests. You are partners. It’s also – the Holy Land – also belongs to you,” Misezhnikov said.
Christian pilgrims say there are many reasons to visit Israel, from the personal to the prophetic.
“It’s a real tangible way that we as Christians in the United States can support Israel at this time not only prophetically but in their national history what they’re going through too,” Pastor Dan said.
For many Christians, a visit to the Jewish state is like coming home.
“It's become an amazing personal experience for me one that I'll never forget and it's almost too much to put into words,” said Ellie Kay.