Jesus spent the majority of his life growing up in Nazareth, working in the community, walking the countryside, bringing his ministry of teaching and healing throughout the region and performing numerous miracles along the way from Cana to Tabgha. Even still, Nazareth and Galilee as a whole have not yet evolved as an international destination and tourism to the region pales in comparison to Jerusalem. While more than 87 percent of Christian tourists visit Jerusalem, only 60 percent of Israel's Christian tourists visit the Galilee, up from less than 50 percent in 2009.
Why does Galilee attract fewer Christians despite the fact that Jesus spent most of his life there? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the Galilee region, despite offering an abundance of important sites, is relatively "off the beaten path" and not as easy to navigate on foot as Jerusalem, which hosts a concentration of sites proximate to each other.
Eduward has been in Israel for three months, living in Jerusalem and volunteering for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, before he made his first trip to Galilee.
Like many tourists, the Galilee was not at the top of Eduward's list of things to do. However, after an invitation to walk the newly redeveloped Gospel Trail prompted him to visit, Eduward quickly realized that Galilee offers much more than he had ever anticipated.
Walking where Jesus walked was an emotional trip and the high point of Eduward's visit to Israel.
"I'm recommending the Gospel Trail to everyone -- Christian and even Jewish people as well, so they can experience where Jesus walked, see the scenery and hike the trail," Eduward told Travelujah.
In an effort to address this, the Israel Ministry of Tourism, along with its partners at the Jewish National Fund, began planning the Gospel Trail, a 60-kilometer hiking trail, 10 years ago. However, once the second intifada took root prompting a sharp drop in tourism plans for the Gospel Trail were put on hold.
Fast forward several years to 2010. Israel had experienced a dramatic rise in Christian tourism, culminating in a record-breaking 2.3 million Christian tourists, representing two-thirds of the 3.45 million tourists who visited the country in 2010. The Christian sector was demonstrating the strongest growth of all sectors too. While Jewish tourism had grown from 800,000 to 1 million in the last five years, Christian tourism was up more than four-fold, from just under 500,000 tourists in 2005 to 2.3 million tourists in 2010. Tourism officials made the Gospel Trail a priority and, at a cost of $600,000, the well-marked trail was unveiled a couple months ago.
The Gospel Trail begins at the Mount of Precipice in Nazareth where, according to Luke 4:14-28, Jesus was rejected by his townsmen who threatened to throw him over the mountainside. The trail travels down the ancient "Pilgrims Path" 500 meters to the Jezreel Valley below, and continues along the Nazareth Range providing views of the Mount Tabor, Kafr Kanna and travels, via the Golani Junction to the Horns of Hattin site of the clash between the Crusader forces and the Muslim armies under Saladin. It continues past the antiquities of Magdala to Tabgha, the Mount of Beatitudes, eventually ending at Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee.
The Gospel Trail experience offers the Christian faithful a unique opportunity to take a similar path to the one that Jesus would have trodden.
Additional branches of the trail will allow visitors to access other important sites. A new dock alongside Capernaum allows visitors to include a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, where, according to Mark 4:35, Jesus calmed the sea. With a ride to Ein Gev or Tiberias, groups can have the possibility of including prayer time or singing on the boat. Scripture readings, safety barriers, shaded rest areas and safety features are to be included and are expected to be in place along the trail shortly.
The Gospel Trail is part of the Israel Ministry of Tourism's effort to broaden Israel's tourism and reach new market segments like hikers and Christian youth groups. Pilgrimage is viewed as a natural means to self discovery and attracts young people seeking to connect to their spiritual roots.
Father Atuire, director of Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, the Vatican pilgrimage organizer responsible for organizing programs for 750,000 pilgrims annually, has been actively seeking to reach out to more Christians including youths, by offering alternative journeys of faith such as walking pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela as well as social justice tours of Nepal and packages to World Youth Day.
The Gospel Trail is envisioned to serve a similar purpose: to connect youths to pilgrimage by walking in Jesus' footsteps. Pilgrimage is viewed as a natural means to self discovery and attracts young people seeking to connect to their spiritual roots.
Latin Patriarchal Vicar Bishop Boutros Marcuzzo accompanied us along a leg of the Gospel Trail and echoed his desire for young people to have a direct and spontaneous interaction with nature along the way.
"We want young people to come," he told Travelujah. "And this trail is very encouraging for young people."
The Gospel Trail was developed in consultation with Evangelical, Protestant and Orthodox church leaders and provides pilgrims and others an opportunity to experience the Holy Land on foot while connecting in a spiritual and physical way to the Biblical landscapes that feature in Jesus' life.
The Gospel Trail comes on the heels of another popular northern Israel hike also catering to Christian tourists, the Jesus Trail. The Jesus Trail follows a similar route as the new Gospel Trail and to a large extent serves the same function. However, the Jesus Trail encourages a bit more diversity as it passes through some outlying Arab villages in the Galilee while the Gospel Trail, focuses more on exploring the indigenous nature of the region.
By highlighting their connection to important holy sites, both bring a much-needed awareness to Galilee, a region that is still often overlooked by visitors to Israel, though, perhaps, not for much longer.
"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him" (Matthew 4:23-25).
Elisa L. Moed is the founder and CEO of Travelujah Holy Land Tours. A 24-year tourism-consulting veteran, Elisa has worked for many international chains, banks, developers and hotel management companies in her role as a specialized hospitality industry consultant.
Travelujah is the leading Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land.