From prayer to party

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By Zsarlene B. Chua, Reporter

That the Philippines is a Christian country — more than 90% of the population is Christian, with over 80% Roman Catholic — was the inevitable result of the country’s centuries of experience as a colony under Spain and then America. It then follows that Filipinos see Israel — the land where most of the people written about in the Bible were born and walked, including the religion’s central figure, Jesus Christ — as a special place worthy of any bucket list.

“Four years ago, I realized how fundamental the tourism relationship between the Israel and the Philippines is… it comes naturally together,” said Effie Ben Matityau, Israel’s ambassador to the Philippines, during the embassy’s tourism road show on April 24 at the Makati Shangri-La, Manila hotel.

He added that Israel’s ministry of tourism was initially skeptical about the Manila market, but the rising number of tourists coming from the Philippines changed their minds: according to the ministry’s data, there’s been a 120% increase in Filipino travelers to Israel in January 2018 compared to the same month last year.

“Our biggest game changer would be the introduction of direct flights from Manila to Tel Aviv,” he said before explaining that the lack of flights remains a challenge though they are serviced by other airlines like Turkish Airlines.

But that might not remain much of a challenge any longer as Hassan Madah, director of India and the Philippines for Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, reported at the same road show that they have been in talks with the Philippine flag carrier to introduce direct flights to Israel and that Philippine Airlines (PAL) “is really considering it.”

“We’re optimistic PAL will fly direct either this year or next year,” he said.

Mr. Madah said the ministry has seen a 42% jump in the number of visitors from the Philippines from January to March compared to the same period last year.

They are expecting to welcome more than 30,000 visitors by the end of 2018.

Filipinos going to Israel need not apply for a visa prior to the trip as they can travel visa-free for 90 days within the country — they only need to be interviewed at their port of entry. Likewise, Israelis coming to the Philippines can stay visa-free for 59 days.

Unbeknownst to many, the visa-free policy is a testament to a long-standing friendship between the two countries, starting in the 1930s when President Manuel L. Quezon’s open door policy saw the country welcoming more than a thousand Jewish refugees fleeing from the Holocaust.

Mr. Quezon planned to welcome more than 100,000 Jews to the country and initially issued 10,000 visas, but these plans were shattered with Japan’s invasion and occupation of the Philippines during World War II.

A few decades later, the Philippines was the only Asian country among the 33 that voted in favor of United Nations resolution 181 concerning the partition of the Palestinian state and the creation of the state of Israel in 1947.

Much of Israel’s pull for tourists lies in its religious sites as many people come to the small country straddled between Asia and Africa to retrace the steps of Jesus and other religious icons and its tourism ministry is well aware of that fact as it promotes pilgrimage tours.

While there are those who make their pilgrimage to the Holy Land the hard way — like Christian preacher Arthur Blessit who, in 1977, travelled 22,500 kilometers through five continents and 30 countries, all the while carrying a wooden cross before arriving in Jerusalem and preaching in the Garden Tomb — the majority do the pilgrimage in relative comfort, travelling via tour buses and staying in hotels.

Pilgrims can start their journey in Jerusalem, a city whose more than 3,000 year history is important to Christians. Jesus was presented to the temples of Jerusalem when he was a young boy and he continued to preach and heal in the city in his adulthood.

It was also within Jerusalem that Jesus and his disciples held the Last Supper after which he was arrested in the nearby Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives and was crucified in Golgotha. Modern day visitors can also visit the Chapel of the Angel within the Garden Tomb, where Jesus is said to have been buried.

South of Jerusalem lies Bethlehem, the birthplace and of both Jesus and King David. There pilgrims can visit the Church of the Nativity, the oldest continuously worshipped site in Christianity, which is run jointly by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church. While Bethlehem is considered a territory of the Palestinian Authority and crossing over might be a difficult matter due to the conflict between the two states, the Israel Ministry of Tourism is promoting cooperation between private Israeli and Palestinian partners to develop crossing points between the two sites.

Also in Palestinian territory is the biblical City of Jericho, the Mount of Temptation where Satan offered Jesus the kingdom and the world, and the town of Bethany, where Lazarus was buried and was later revived.

But as Mr. Madah said during the roadshow, Israel is more than just a country for pilgrims as it is also home to one of the world’s top party cities, Tel Aviv.

“The city never sleeps,” said Mr. Madah.

Tel Aviv is a vibrant city with stretches of golden beach including Frishman beach, colorful markets, a flourishing culinary scene, and outstanding nightlife.

And with an average summer temperature of 24° to 30° Celsius and winter temperatures of between 9° to 17° Celsius, there is never a bad time to visit the party city.

Lonely Planet once described Tel Aviv as “one of the world’s Top 10 hedonistic city breaks.”

Health buffs can also visit the Dead Sea, located a few hours away from Jerusalem. Considered the lowest place on Earth (it is 428 meters below sea level) and the second saltiest body of water in the world after the Don Juan pond in Antarctica, the Dead Sea is known for the healing powers of its cobalt blue waters.

Mr. Madah said that even breathing the air from the lake will give a person a good night’s sleep. He suggested that people visiting the Dead Sea stay the night in the area.

For those who love the outdoors, visit the Negev, Israel’s desert, located in the south of the country. There one can experience desert biking and 4×4 driving. Abraham — biblical figure considered the founder of three of the world’s great religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — was said to have lived in that desert after being banished from Egypt.

Eilat, the country’s southernmost city which located at the northern tip of the Red Sea, is Israel’s famed resort city drawing nearly 2.8 million visitors a year.

Promising an average of 360 sunny days a year, it is summer all year round in Eilat, which has 12,500 hotel rooms, 150 restaurants, and a choice between nearly 20 beaches.

In contrast, Israel’s north attracts those who prefer vineyards over beaches as it is home to almost 100 vineyards and wineries, and is where Israel’s number one ski resort, Mount Harmon, is located.

Northern Israel, considered the country’s best-kept secret, has vast green landscapes with rolling hills and valleys, quaint small towns and historic sites like Galilee and Nazareth. Haifa, the country’s third largest city and home to the Bahai World Center, a UNESCO world heritage site, is also located in Northern Israel.

So after all the prayers and other religous obligations are done, Filipino tourists can go for a swim, party the night away, ski down a mountain, or settle down for well-earned glass of Israeli wine.