Holy Land Pilgrimages Decline to a Trickle, Because of the Gaza War

The downturn is another severe setback for the beleaguered local Christian community, which is heavily dependent on revenue from tourism.

An empty Church of the Nativity
An empty Church of the Nativity (photo: Courtesy photo / Courtesy photo)

Israel’s war in Gaza since Oct. 7 has led to the near collapse of a once-thriving pilgrimage/tourism sector.

“Within a matter of minutes, everything changed.”

This is what Arsen Aghazarian recalled about Oct. 7. He is a consultant and public relations manager for Terra Dei, a pilgrimage tour operator with 14 employees in the Holy Land since 2013. 

On Oct. 6, Aghazarian recalls that he was traveling to London. His flight landed at 1 a.m. 

“I finally got to bed at 4:30 a.m. When I woke up the next morning, I saw that there were 480 messages on my phone,” said Aghazarian. “It was like the end of the world, really. It was surreal.”

Immediately, Terra Dei had to work on getting tour groups out of Israel.

“The airport was closed. There was a curfew in the streets. It seemed like a different country,” he said. “Our guides had to tell people to stay in their hotels, as airlines were canceling their trips. The country seemed out of control for a few days. For tourism, it was a heavy blow. We had to give back refunds of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

To give a sense of how this war has affected the pilgrimage/tourism sector, Aghazarian gives the following statistics for his company:

“In 2019, we had 4,979 pilgrims come to Israel and go on tour with Terra Dei. In 2020, up until March, we had 1,531 people. In 2021, we had 79 people (due to COVID). In 2022, we had 2,958 people. In 2023, we had 3,243.” 

After Oct. 7, 75 pilgrim groups canceled their reservations with Terra Dei for the rest of 2023, and 70 groups canceled for 2024. 

So far this year, Terra Dei has had three groups of pilgrims come to Israel on pilgrimage from Spain and France. They totaled 43 people.

Aghazarian clarified that, on Oct. 7, none of his 106 pilgrims were near the border with Gaza — which is located in the southwestern part of the country.

“Most of our pilgrims want to focus their visit to Jerusalem and the northern region of Galilee and Nazareth,” he said.

The situation today in the country has many facets.

“First, I can say that this war has been a heavy blow for the country. Second, there is hope,” Aghazarian. “There are no restrictions on flying into the country now. And, third, the power of Hamas has been greatly diminished, especially in terms of them firing rockets into the country. Up north, there have been skirmishes near the border with Lebanon. But Israel has done greater damage to Lebanon than Lebanon has done to Israel.”

The government of Israel has given some financial assistance to pilgrimage-tour operators. But this is set to end soon — though nobody is sure when that will happen.

“If something does not change soon, people will need to change jobs out of the tourism sector,” he said. “Many tourism groups are already out of business.”

Holy Land Ferrisi
Clockwise from top: Armenian Quarter Road, a Jaffa sunset and Bethlehem bell tower(Photo: Courtesy photos)



The Saxum Visitor Center is located 10 miles from Jerusalem, in the area of Abu Ghosh, where the Gospel passage of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) took place. Operated by members and collaborators of Opus Dei, it has a multimedia resource center that allows visitors to take a virtual tour through the main events of sacred history. 

Before Oct. 7, Saxum trained local guides on topics of Christianity. These classes were generally in Hebrew for Jewish guides. In 2023, they trained 90 people. They also welcomed 1,200 pilgrims per month, with a total of 10,211 pilgrims for the year.

Shortly after Oct. 7, Saxum closed — with many members of the staff deciding to leave the country.

“However, by the end of November 2023, seeing that the situation in Jerusalem and its surrounding areas was returning to normal, we decided to reopen our doors,” said Blanca Ramirez, director of the Saxum Visitor Center. “Since then, we have welcomed various groups of visitors, including local tour guides. In December, we received a visit for the first time from a delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Trinity Monastery in Jerusalem.” 

Since the beginning of 2024, all staff members returned to Saxum.

“Since January, we have had more than 200 people from different countries coming to Saxum Visitor Center,” said Ramirez. “We are thinking about offering two short courses on Christianity this year.”

Saxum also organizes walks on the “Emmaus Trail.” The trail is 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) long. 

“We already did two Emmaus Trails this year, with around 40 persons, mostly people who work in different embassies, local Jews and Spaniards who live in Israel,” said Ramirez. “In terms of the Emmaus Trail, really fit people can finish it in five hours.”

When asked if she feels safe, Ramirez stated, “We try to have a normal life; we feel safe where we are. That’s why we are here.”

On a hopeful note, Ramirez points to the fact that, for Holy Week, Saxum just welcomed a group of 16 women pilgrims who flew in from Spain. 



The checkpoints going into the West Bank, including Bethlehem, were completely closed after Oct. 7. This led to the sense of feeling caged in among civilians.

“They kept the checkpoints closed for about three months afterwards, with very minimal opening in very specific time intervals,” said Aghazarian.

Today, some of these checkpoints have reopened for most of the day. 

“For example, the Bethlehem checkpoint is open nowadays from 6 a.m. until 9:00 p.m.,” he said. “But this is subject to constant change, and they might close everything in any given moment as they wish.”

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA ), since Oct. 7, Israeli soldiers in connection with Israeli settlers in the West Bank have attacked and killed 434 Palestinians living in the West Bank, sometimes near Bethlehem. Five thousand Palestinians in the West Bank have been injured. 

“It is very sad because Bethlehem, technically, almost completely relies on tourism. The city is crippled. There has been a mobilization of support from some Catholic Christian groups and evangelicals –— mainly bringing water, food, clothes and so on. They come in and pray with these people from Bethlehem — poor families and sick families — who have been unemployed for so long. It is not an easy job to go in and come back. I personally participated with some of those groups. Once when I went, there was an exchange of fire between Israeli and Palestinian elements. They closed the whole road,” said Aghazarian.

Holy Land Ferrisi
L to R: Empty Christian Quarter of Old Jerusalem, no tourists in Bethlehem and the door of Holy Sepulchre Church(Photo: Courtesy photos)

“But we would like to see more support. It is important that we continue to see and help these ‘living stones’; local Christians who are still living here,” he said.

Balqees Qumsieh is a jewelry designer in her mid-30s from Bethlehem who lives with her parents. Prior to Oct. 7, her business, located near Manger Square, was thriving.

“We make home decorations and keychains made of resin. We also make religious articles for pilgrims. Before Oct. 7, business was good. I was working for a souvenir shop, getting ready for the Christmas market,” said Qumsieh. “Everything stopped on Oct. 7.”

She remembers that, on that day, there were many pilgrims from Rome, and then she started hearing things.

“A rocket fell nearby — near the checkpoint. We started getting messages on our cellphones. The rockets came from Gaza. It was a little bit scary. Then every country began to recall their tourists,” she said.

Today, there are very few tourists in Bethlehem. Qumsieh recently sold items to Indonesian and Indian tourists. She has not seen American or European tourists since Oct. 7.

“Some people decided to sell their houses and leave Bethlehem for good. I know two families — relatives of mine — who just got up and left. They feel there is no future for their kids,” she said.

Qumsieh recalled that Christmas 2023 was “really sad.”

“Normally, it is full of joy, with decorations and the lighting of the Christmas tree. You can really feel the Christmas spirit here. But this year, there were no decorations. The only thing we had was the regular Masses,” she said.

Easter celebrations will also be subdued this year, both on Catholic Easter on March 31 and Orthodox Easter on May 5. 

“People are praying for peace. Many people have lost hope. But some people do hold on to hope, like my mom. She still hopes. She says she is used to this,” she said.

When asked what her dreams are for the future, Qumsieh says what many in her generation think, “I hope for peace, to live normally and to have no borders. I hope to have a future.”