In a tiny corner of the Mediterranean just east of North Africa, all three of the world’s greatest religions took root—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—spreading throughout the world and forever marking this region as a wellspring of spirituality. And it was two modern-day countries in particular, Israel and Jordan, that became the caretakers of that legacy. While Israel is certainly the treasure house of Judaic, Christian and Islamic religious history, Jordan, too, enjoys a rich Biblical legacy. It’s the home of Mt. Nebo, the mountain from which Moses looked down upon the “Promised Land” before he died and which today houses the Memorial Church of Moses, built over a fourth century Byzantine basilica and one-time sanctuary honoring Moses. Nearby is the area known as Wadi Kharrar, which has long been believed to be the biblical Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John the Baptist lived and Jesus was baptized.
Jordan’s Umm al-Rasas is an important archaeological site declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, with structures dating from the third to ninth centuries and best known for its sixth and seventh century churches housing magnificent Byzantine mosaics detailing ancient life and religion. Madaba, too, is famous for the many Byzantine mosaics uncovered there, the most famous being the sixth century “Madaba Map” of the Holy Land in St. George’s Church.
The point being, both country’s religious legacies are their driving tourism force and a potent one at that, with Israel enjoying back-toback record tourism records and, according to Consul Haim Gutin, Israel Tourism Commissioner for North and South America, very much on track for a third.
“With the numbers we’re seeing now,” says Gutin, “we’re very confident 2012 is going to be another record year.… We’ve been actively working with religious leaders,” all of whom are continuing to promote the Holy Land programs, as well as tour operators and cruise lines developing new programs, he adds.
Even with the recent tensions in Gaza, bookings remain strong, Gutin says confidently, pointing out that, “Most of our tourism sites are well away from that area and tourism continues to be safe and secure. In fact, we’re continuing to develop our infrastructure with ongoing development of new hotel rooms to meet the demand.”
Indeed, last year the Israel Hotel Association adopted a plan to develop some 5,000 new hotel rooms to be built within five years by expanding existing hotels, as well as adding even more new hotels. According to the IHA, the plan’s implementation will add 410,000 tourists a year and 12,500 jobs, as well as a profit of about $8 billion to the gross domestic product in one decade. The expansion and upgrade of existing hotels are targeting popular vacation areas in two stages—2,000 rooms in the first three years and 3,000 in the following two years.
New hotel openings this year include the five-star Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem located in the city-center near The Old City, just a few minutes on foot from Jaffa Gate and Tower of David; the five-star Savoy Tel Aviv Sea Side located at the heart of the city just a short walk from the beach; the Port Hotel Tel Aviv, located steps away from the renewed Port Zone, at the corner of Ha Yaarkon and Yirmeyahu streets; and the Ramada Netanya Hotel, the only five-star luxury hotel in the city, located in the new Netanya Promenade offering views of the Mediterranean.