Holy Land Without Pilgrims [premium]

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Holy Land Without Pilgrims [premium]


In recent years, more and more tourists have come to Israel and the West Bank. Due to the Covid 19 pandemic, it is still uncertain when they will return.



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There has never been anything like it, ”says Wajeeh Nuseibeh. “Not even in times of war. Even if there were no more people to be seen in the streets, they always came to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. ”For 45 years, Nuseibeh has been sitting at the gate to the oldest church in Jerusalem and watching thousands of pilgrims crowd into his church. Now they are all gone. The gateway to the Blessed Sacrament of Christianity has been closed since March 25th.

Wajeeh Nuseibeh is the master of the key of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Access to the place where, according to tradition, Jesus was crucified and rose again is administered by a man who believes neither in the death of the cross nor in the resurrection of the Nazarene. Nuseibeh is a Muslim.

The tradition of a Muslim family providing door keepers and caretakers to the church can be traced back to the seventh century. Initially, the Nuseibehs were used by the Muslim conquerors as guardians, later their function was primarily that of a neutral arbitrator between the six Christian denominations, who all see themselves as true heirs to the Holy Sepulcher.

Since 1349, when Black Death, the most devastating plague epidemic in the Middle Ages, struck the city, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has never been closed to believers.

The Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, the most important holy places for Muslims after Mecca and Medina, were closed in March. The Western Wall, the most important pilgrimage destination for Jews from all over the world, is only a few minutes’ walk away. It was recently only open to believers from the old town – under strict distance regulations.

No guests in the pilgrim houses, no collections

“I did not experience that the pilgrims were all gone even during the Second Intifada,” says German Franciscan Gregor Geiger. The 50-year-old priest and linguist from northern Baden has been living in Jerusalem since 1999, researching and teaching Hebrew at the Studium Biblicum directly on Via Dolorosa. Again and again he leads groups of pilgrims to the holy places. “I have the impression that no pilgrims will come all summer,” says Geiger. Of the 30 confreres, including some over 70, only one is currently leaving the Franciscan monastery on Via Dolorosa for shopping. “For the Franciscans, as for the churches in general, it is also a financial disaster,” says the priest. Due to the lack of guests in pilgrim houses and the lack of collections, important income was lost.

I never saw that the pilgrims were gone even during the Second Intifada. ”
Gregor Geiger, German Franciscan

Not only pilgrimage tourism is of great economic importance for Israel. In the past few years, the country has also boomed among culture and study, beach and lifestyle travelers. For the third year in a row, more tourists visited Israel than ever before. In 2019, over 4.5 million people came to the country, including almost 50,000 Austrians.

Hotels were partially converted

In international comparison, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Israel and the Palestinian Territories has so far been less dramatic than for most OECD countries. Rigorous exit and quarantine regulations as well as rapid restrictions on air traffic initially prevented the pandemic from reaching catastrophic proportions as in other countries. Israel has a fairly low death rate with one of the highest number of tests performed per capita in the world. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and the country’s Arab minorities are most affected. The Palestinian Territories report relatively few cases and deaths.

Some vacant hotels have now been converted into quarantine hostels for Covid 19 sufferers with mild symptoms, including the luxurious “Dan Panorama” in Tel Aviv. Almost all Dan Hotels, Israel’s largest luxury chain, are currently closed, including the group’s famous “King David” in Jerusalem, which has hosted countless stars and statesmen. “We hope to be able to reopen some of our hotels for the Shavuot weekly festival at the end of May,” said Yigal Zoref, sales manager at Dan Hotels.

First domestic tourism in the ground floor zone

In the meantime, a gradual return to tourism has been agreed. From May 3, holiday homes and hotels could at least put their ground floor back into operation for domestic tourists. The Israelis already used the first week of May after the extensive standstill of the country in April for long walks and short stays in the holiday apartments. In the meantime, the shopping centers and open-air markets have been reopened, gatherings of up to 100 people are to be allowed again from May 31st. When the country will reopen to foreign guests, it is currently still uncertain. Amir Halevi, State Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, is extremely optimistic. “We are constantly negotiating with the Ministry of Health,” he says, “some airlines want to get back in touch in May.” British Airways, Wizz Air and Ukraine International Airlines have already announced regular flights from Europe as early as next week.

The existence of many in tourism is at stake

Tourists, incoming agencies, hoteliers and restaurateurs still have a dry spell ahead. Many of their employees have long sent them on vacation or had to quit immediately. The cleaners and dishwashers are particularly hard hit in accommodation and catering – it is not uncommon for illegally employed refugees from Eritrea and Sudan. They are therefore not entitled to the unemployment benefits offered by the state. Benjamin Netanyahu has benefited from the pandemic. A few weeks ago it seemed impossible that the incumbent prime minister would continue to govern despite a corruption allegation against him in a coalition with his former rival Benny Gantz from the blue-white alliance.

“We hope that we can reopen for the Shavuot Weekly Festival in late May.”
Yigal Zoref, sales manager at Dan Hotels

This will also have far-reaching political consequences for the Palestinian Territories – at a time when the economic consequences of the corona virus are only really noticeable. The impact of the pandemic on tourism is already evident. “The political situation means that as Palestinians who work in tourism, we are prepared for a lot,” says Ashraf Bakri, “but this surpasses everything.” The 35-year-old initially had a guest house and two backpacker hostels for over six years “Mount 41” in Jericho and the “Area D” in Ramallah.

Like Israel, the West Bank had a record number of visitors in 2019: Over three million tourists primarily visited the biblical sites of Bethlehem, Hebron and Jericho. Bakri’s hostels were also well attended. Now the father of a little daughter is left with nothing. He had to fire his twelve employees in March. He has little hope that the tourists will return soon. “It was tourism that hit the crisis first. He will be the last to recover from it. ”

Trend destination Tel Aviv without events

On the Israeli side, the economic consequences are also devastating, especially for the self-employed, especially for creative artists who also make a living from tourism. Tel Aviv in particular has long been established as the trend destination on the Mediterranean – not only for visitors from the art and party scene in Berlin, Paris and New York. In recent years, thousands of people from all over the world have made pilgrimages to the city’s most important tourist event, the “Tel Aviv Pride”. More than 250,000 people are said to have participated in the Gay Pride March in June 2019.

This year’s Pride week has already been canceled. It should be postponed to an as yet unknown date. “Corona meets us completely unexpectedly,” says Gil Naveh, who heads the drag competition at the LGBTQ film festival. “We had already won internationally known stars for this.” For the event, drag queens from abroad such as Gloria Viagra from Berlin and Sherry Vine from New York had come to Tel Aviv in recent years.

During the day, Naveh, as spokesman for Amnesty International, answers media inquiries about the Israel-Palestine conflict, among other things. At night, he stands in front of a celebrating audience as a wicked Diva Galina Port De Bras in glitter fumble and with a blazing wig. With Corona, the dazzling appearances in crowded bars are a thing of the past for the time being. “Drag was always there and we know from history that it will always come back,” says Naveh. “But I’m worried that many of my friends won’t make it through the crisis. Some are HIV positive or have had cancer. How will it go on for you? “

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