Israel seeks another type of coexistence – between tourists and the earth

Although an economic boon, tourism can be a destructive force for the environment. Israel, filled with religious tourism destinations, is exploring ways to make pilgrimages sustainable. 

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men run down a street in Jerusalem's Old City, last week. Israel, filled with religious tourism destinations, is exploring ways to make pilgrimages sustainable.

This week Jerusalem hosted its first green pilgrimage symposium, tapping the fledgling but growing interest in promoting local communities and environmental sustainability through religious tourism.

That’s a formidable task for a city where visitors have clashed for centuries, often ravaging the landscape. Suffice it to say that city officials are looking to improve on the Crusader model of pilgrimage. 

Mayor Nir Barkat seeks to leverage Jerusalem’s ancient brand, which for centuries has appealed to pilgrims of the three monotheistic religions. He seeks to triple annual tourism to 10 million by 2020. But to do that in a sustainable way, reducing the environmental impact and boosting local economies, requires the buy-in of a key sector.

“Nothing can be done seriously in Jerusalem without engaging the faith communities, because we’re not just any city,” says Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur. Green pilgrimage “is a platform to work with our faith communities but also the best possible platform to work with other cities and faith communities around the world.”

Jerusalem was one of 10 founding members of the Green Pilgrimage Network (GPN), established 18 months ago. Among the initial group were Sufi Muslims from Kano, Nigeria; Sikhs from Amritsar, India; and Taoists from Lougang, China

Next year, Shinto followers in Japan plan to join, and Ms. Tsur announced today that Israel would form a national chapter as well.

Lougang perhaps best represents the potential scale of the movement. It has poured $1.5 billion into greening the city, building a new green spa complex, teaching organic farming, and initiating water harvesting. Now the city is trying to recruit 15 new cities into the network, says Allison Hilliard of the Alliance of Religions and Conservations, which oversees GPN. 

GPN is also working on a chapter for the hajj to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which draws nearly 3 million Muslims annually – who leave behind 100 million plastic bottles. GPN seeks to tap into values of environmental stewardship across all faiths to cut down on such negative side effects of tourism.

But it can be a tough sell. Despite the fact that Palestinians – most of whom are Muslim – make up more than a third of Jerusalem’s population, very few attended the symposium. 

Some of the pilgrimage routes with the greatest potential, like the Kidron Valley ascent from the Dead Sea, crisscross numerous political barriers and strong political pressures act against those trying to reach across the divide.

Elsewhere in Israel, projects like the Jesus Trail have demonstrated the potential for Arab-Jewish cooperation.

Prior to the construction of the trail, “One million tourists were visiting [the Arab town of] Cana every year, and they only stayed for one hour,” says cofounder Maoz Inon. With it came the first guesthouse in Cana, an ecotourist goat farm in nearby Ilaniya, and more Christian tourists who are spreading their dollars throughout the struggling rural communities.

The trail head is in the old city of Nazareth, one of the most impoverished areas of Israel, at Mr. Inon’s Fauzi Azar Inn. Since he established the inn in 2005, five more guesthouses have opened in Nazareth.

“If we had 10,000 more of him, we’d be much further along in having a truly sustainable product,” says Deidre Shurland, a symposium speaker and coordinator of the United Nations Environment Program’s Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism.

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