NAZARETH, Israel — Israel hopes to attract Christian tourists with a new pilgrimage route unveiled this week in the Galilee, a network of footpaths, roads and bicycle paths linking sites central to the lives of Jesus and his disciples.
Developing sites linked to Jewish history has long been a priority for the Jewish state. But the Gospel Trail, inaugurated Thursday by Israeli tourism officials, is a nod to the growing number of Christians traveling to the country in recent years, outnumbering Jewish visitors.
More than two-thirds of the 3.45 million tourists in Israel last year were Christian, double the amount of the previous year, and about 40 percent of them defined themselves as religious pilgrims, according to Israel's Tourism Ministry.
The 40-mile (60-kilometer) trail in northern Israel passes sites including Tabgha, the traditional site of Jesus' miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the Mount of Beatitudes, where he delivered his Sermon on the Mount. It ends at Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus espoused his teachings.
Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, a Catholic bishop, led Bible students and reporters on an inaugural hike Thursday on the first section of the trail — a footpath setting out from a hilltop lookout point on the outskirts of Nazareth, Jesus' hometown.
Dressed in a flowing crimson robe, the bishop read a passage from the Gospel of St. Luke that describes the Nazarenes who brought Jesus to the hilltop, known as Mount Precipice, and threatened to throw him off the cliff.
"The town of Nazareth is where everything started," said Marcuzzo. "This reminds us to have faith."
Young Christians from around the world, spending the year in Israel studying scriptures, sang and strummed a guitar as they followed the bishop down the newly paved footpath, which offers panoramic views of the verdant valley below.
"We want to really experience what (Jesus) has been through, to experience his human side," said Saul Vasquez, 22, from New York, as he hiked the trail.
The new trail includes New Testament quotes carved into stones along the path, shaded rest areas and picnic sites. Officials are slated to officially open the entire route next month after installing signs and printing maps.
The government-sponsored trail comes alongside another hiking route in the Galilee, the Jesus Trail, which an Israeli hotelier spearheaded independently several years ago and which already attracts backpackers and other Christian tourists. It leads trekkers from Nazareth to Kafr Kana, where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine, before continuing on to other holy sites.
In recent years, Israeli tourism officials have moved away from branding their Mediterranean country as a sun-sea-sand destination and have focused on its historic holy sites that are bedrocks for Judaism and Christianity. Other traditional pilgrimage paths have been popular draws for Christians, particularly the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem tracing Jesus' final steps on his way to his crucifixion.
Tourism officials say they are now working with tour providers to market the Gospel Trail to visiting church groups and pilgrims.
Rafael Ben Hur, a senior tourism ministry official, said the trail could encourage support of Israel among Christians.
"The land of God is a part of their history, too," Ben Hur said. "They can learn about themselves, that they have so much in common with the Jewish people, and that it is important that the Jewish people keep this land."