Israel expecting tourism boost from Pope's visit

Pope Benedict XVI, who will be visiting the Holy Land next week, is expected to be joined by 10,000 pilgrims and his visit will give a strong boost to the number of Catholics visiting Israel this year, said the Israeli Tourism Miniser Stas Meseznikov.

Despite the presence of the Pope, Meseznikov said he still expected the number of evangelical Christians visiting Israel to be higher than the number of Catholics. Around 10,000 Catholic pilgrims are expected to turn out for the Pope's visit.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Meseznikov said, "The evangelical community is a huge tourism potential which we have barely tapped into."

Three million tourists visited Israel last year, of whom 1.8 million were Christians. The number of visitors broke the previous record which was set in 2000, when Pope John-Paul II visited Israel. Last year 70 per cent of Christian tourists were evangelicals.

Meseznikov said that it would be a “huge accomplishment” if, given the economic crisis, Israel could reach 2.5 million foreign tourists in 2009. Although he said the Pope’s visit was likely to boost tourism to Israel among Christians, he said the downturn would still take its toll.

He said, “Even a very devout Catholic who wants to come in the wake of the papal visit will not be able to if he doesn't have the money."

He added that Israel did not currently have the capacity to take more than three million tourists per year, but added that the country was building four more hotels within the next two years. He also said that he hoped evangelical supporters of Israel would help lessen the impact of the economic crisis on the country.

He said, "A visit to the Holy Land can help Israel out of the crisis."