Life in the Middle East
The West Bank
Core Countries

Tourism in the Holy Land
by Charlie Keenan

(AP/World Wide)

Jerusalem's Holy Sites

Holy sites in Jerusalem remain hands-down the most popular religious destinations for travelers. Why? In part, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all claim the city as a sacred site. Here are the top spots for each religion:

Dome of the Rock. Built in a.d. 691, this magnificent shrine dominates the Haram-ash/Temple Mount, an area that rises above the city. Dome of the Rock stands over the spot on which Muslims believe Mohammad ascended to heaven. Jews say this is where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac.

Western Wall. Located at the base of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall is one of the four walls of the Second Temple built by King Herod. For 1,000 years under Islamic governments, the wall was the closest point to the ancient temple in which Jews were allowed to worship. The wall's accessibility makes it a popular spot for Jews.

El Aksa Mosque. Built in a.d. 720, El Aksa Mosque is on the southern side of the Temple Mount. It ranks third in the world as the most significant place of prayer for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Built about a.d. 330, this church stands on the spot where Jesus was probably crucified, buried, and resurrected.

The recent troubles in Israel have taken a serious toll on the country's tourism business.

For the first six months 2001, 1.2 million tourists arrived by plane—45 percent less than the same period in 2000, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.

That's a serious blow to one of Israel's largest industries, which benefited from $3.8 billion in spending as recently as 1998. Tourism amounts to nearly 4 percent of its gross domestic product, the sum of all goods and services produced.

When times are good, tourists flock to places such as Israel's historical and holy sites, the Dead Sea, and the Mediterranean coast. But the slowdown has hotels, restaurants, and other services feeling the pinch.

The Tourism Ministry estimates 50,000 to 60,000 people have lost their jobs. Among hotels, 25 of 350 have closed and 15,000 employees have been laid off, representing 42 percent of the workforce.

"This is the deepest and longest-running crisis that we've ever had," says Avi Rosenthal, the head of Israel's Hotelier's Association. "The worst part is we don't see the end on the horizon."

Western Europeans account for half of all tourists, followed by North Americans (20 percent), Eastern Europeans (11 percent), and Asians (10 percent). But since the current crisis began last year, many have chosen to wait, afraid to visit while a conflict that has claimed more than 650 lives since last September remains unsettled.

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