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Implications, actors, and geopolitical levers of tourism. Israel / Palestine: what religious places tell us

Caroline Rozenholc-Escobar
Traduction de Soha Ghezili
Cet article est une traduction de :
Implications, acteurs et leviers géopolitiques du tourisme. Israël/Palestine : ce que nous disent les lieux du religieux [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Implicações, atores e instrumentos geopolíticos do turismo. Israel / Palestina: o que nos contam os lugares religiosos [pt]


To contribute to the debates on the implications, actors and geopolitical levers of tourism, this article particularly examines religious tourism. For this reason, it is based on the first results of a research in urban geography on the role of the religious tourism industry in the realignment of the Israeli-Palestinian space and as a geopolitical lever for the positioning of Israel and of the Palestinian Territories on the international scene. It responds to this by looking at the places that contribute to producing this form of tourism; and the physical flows and symbolic movements of which these places are the objectives. On this territory where the touristic attraction continues despite the continuous violence, three types of sites have been identified: pilgrimage sites, alternative sites, and religious theme parks. This article will show how these sites, which will be collected under the term “places of mobility”, are linked and how they produce what we will refer to as “mobility of places”.

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  • 1 Here, Geopolitics refers to both international relations engaged by cross-border mobilities, and po (...)
  • 2 Examples include the six million Christian pilgrims to Lourdes each year or the one hundred million (...)

1Many authors (Boukhris and Chapuis, 2016; Caron-Malenfant, 2004; Cazes and Courade, 2004; Chiffoleau, 2003; Giblin, 2007; Hoerner, 2007) have underlined the political or geopolitical dimension1 of tourism, by referring to asymmetric socio-economic exchanges, to considerable transnational mobilities or to the “contradictory representations” of a territory (Giblin, 2012, p. 9) that it engages. But what about religious tourism? Today the question arises sharply, for two reasons. The first is due to the volume of this specific tourism sector2 - in the Middle East it constitutes the main cause of mobility (Chiffoleau, 2003) until the outbreak of the war in Syria - to its expansion and its growing globalization. The second is due to the religious fact itself, which re-emerging (Davie and Hervieu-Léger, 1996) and fully reconfiguring in the cities (Alsayyad, 2011; Endelstein et al., 2010), in turn, becomes part of the international geopolitical scene by inviting itself again, sometimes violently, into public spaces (Willaime, 2008).

  • 3 The Baha’i religion was born in Persia in the 19th century, but today its’ spiritual center is loca (...)
  • 4 Rabbi Y. Eckstein reports that $1.4 billion has been received from Christian donors for Israel and (...)

2To answer this question, we first need to clarify what we mean by religious tourism. According to the American anthropologist H. Kaell (2014), religious tourism can be defined as a vast lucrative industry of leisure and faith where, as Cohen (1992), Fleischer (2000), and Ron (2009) have shown over the past thirty years, “religious tourists” and “pilgrims” constitute several categories. However, for those interested in the Israeli-Palestinian territory, this definition reduces the economic aspect to the lucrative, and does not sufficiently highlight the geopolitical scope (local development and territorial appropriation) of the religious tourism industry. Yet tourists and pilgrims continue to flock from all over the world to this territory, despite security conditions that are not always guaranteed to them due to armed conflict, a territory where religious places are constantly being produced (i.e., created, transformed or abandoned) (Hutt, 2012), whether they are Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, or Baha'i3 places (Rozenholc, 2017), one might wonder about the role of these religious tourists in the transformation of the places they visit and how they connect distant territories. A. Appadurai (2020) mentions the connectivity of globalization, others speak of the trans-nationalization of the religious dimension and its’ sites (Argyriadis et al., 2014)-, through their practicalities, their financial commitment4, and their mobilities.

  • 5 “And we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the Evangelicals. You know, it’s amazi (...)
  • 6 Belhassen and Ebel (2009) show that the relationship between Israel and “Christian Zionists” was st (...)
  • 7 “(b)reaking into the Arab tour guide monopoly became one of the Zionist’s biggest challenges (…) Th (...)

3Furthermore, J. Feldman and A. Ron (2011) also mention “the Americanization of the Holy Land by Protestant pilgrims”, however, we must also consider the “Israelization” of America: in 2016, the Catholic Jair Bolsonaro, then a presidential candidate, was baptized in the Jordan River by a Protestant pastor in order to seduce his evangelical electorate in Brazil or when D. Trump claims to have moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem for American evangelicals5. That being said, if these actors exploit the religious weight of Israel as a lever for a (re)localized policy (in Brazil, in the United States), the Israeli state is not left out. Since the arrival of the right wing to power in 1977, the development of American evangelical6 tourism has not ceased, hoping to win it over to the cause of the country and of Jewish colonization in the West Bank (Batut-Lucas, 2014). However, K. Cohen-Hattab (2004) mentions that this policy that navigates between soft power (Matelly, 2013) and militant activism is older. It goes back to the early days of political Zionism in Mandatory Palestine to enter, and even monopolize the local tourism market7. Tourism, more specifically religious tourism, thus functions as a “platform” on which “theo-political ideologies” are manifested, distributed and consumed (Belhassen and Ebel, 2009, p. 359) and “tactics of legitimization through religion” are developed (Bowman, 1992).

I. Tourism in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories

  • 8 M. Le Priol, “Pilgrimages to the Holy Land in solidarity with Palestine”, La Croix, ed. online from (...)
  • 9 On this subject, see the survey by J. Maltz (2018) which shows, for example that American evangelic (...)
  • 10 Also widely mentioned by his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Appointed in 2016, Friedman is a (...)

4Religious tourism thus serves as a medium for various local or international actors to “advance” their distinct, even antagonistic, political, and identity interests. This is also the case of these Palestinian and French NGOs, Sabeel or the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development, which offer “pilgrimages to the Holy Land in solidarity with Palestine8 or those, American and/or Israeli, that advocate in favor of a Jewish colonization of the Palestinian Territories9, in particular in the West Bank which they consider as the biblical “heartland” under the name of Judea and Samaria. It is on this basis that one can read the announcement, in February 2010, of the inscription of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem as the national heritage of Israel. However, it is worth noting that this colonization, which was recognized by the Trump administration in November 201910, remains illegal under international law and is also not unanimously supported by the Israeli population.

  • 11 In recent years, numbers are on the rise again. The Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs indicated 3 (...)

5These rapidly developed examples show that geopolitical analysis cannot be reduced only to the usual categories of analysis of the Israeli state (“Jews” versus “Arabs”). The “methodological nationalism” (Beck, 2002) that these latter reflect is no longer sufficient to account for the Israeli-Palestinian reality. A reality to which immigrant workers (Berthomière and Rozenholc, 2017; Rozenholc, 2018) and tourists, estimated at nearly four million per year, participate even if only by their number and diversity. Compared to the country's population (around eight million), these figures are significant, but they are also very volatile. The consecutive crises that have engulfed the Israeli-Palestinian space over the past twenty years have profoundly recomposed the volumes, the geographical origins, and the religious affiliations of these visitors. Therefore, during the second intifada, between 2000 and 2003, tourism decreased by 37.4% among which the share of “traditional” pilgrimage countries dramatically dropped (from 80% to 90% for Italy, Portugal and Poland between 1999 and 2002) while the amount of American and Brazilian tourists and pilgrims, in particular, rose (Collins-Kreiner et al., 2006). However, in the last ten years ago this foreign presence in Israel has tended to increase11.

  • 12 51% in 2017, but 67% in 2011 according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

6The continuous but variable influx of tourists and pilgrims is surprising in this context of geopolitical instability. It is certainly explained by the influence, the number and the diversity of the holy places which are established there, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Druze, and Baha'i holy places which attract visitors from all over the world and/or by their desire to support these different communities. However, it is Christian tourists and pilgrims, from all denominations and all geographic origins that dominate the Israeli-Palestinian tourism landscape. They alone represent half of the arrivals into the country12 and up to 80% between 1995 and 2000 (Fleischer, 2000). This influence is also demonstrated by their diversity, with Catholics (as a majority), Protestants (evangelical Christians representing 20% of Christian tourists) and Orthodox (Russians, Greeks, and Ethiopians) and the concurrent growth of sites dedicated to the Israeli-Palestine Christian church, which is itself extremely diversified (Andezian, 2010).

  • 13 Hutt (2012) shows that many Jewish religious places were created from 1948, without becoming - incl (...)

7This "over-representation" of Christian tourism in a territory that is otherwise mainly multi-confessional and heavily dominate by the Jewish culture and calendar, is also explained by the fact that there are no Jewish or Muslim Pilgrimage sites of international importance in Israel or the Palestinian territories. Jewish tourists rarely identify as being pilgrims when they visit Israel13 and E. Aubin-Boltanski (2005) clearly shows this in his works: Most Muslim sites in Israel and the Palestinian Territories today have a local dimension, including when their symbolic influence is important (as is the case of Jerusalem).

8These pilgrimages sites are in fact largely deprived of their visitors: due to the boycott of Israel by certain Muslim countries, the destruction of many Palestinian villages in 1948, the difficulty for the Israeli or Palestinian Arab populations to travel within Israel and between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and government restrictions on entry from Arab countries. These Muslim pilgrimage sites, the mobility they should engage, and their identity burden in fact cause mistrust of the government. Moreover, it can be noted that this was also the case for the British and Jordanians who, in their time, already considered these Muslim pilgrimages as a source of potential political instability (Hutt, 2012). As for Christian pilgrimage sites in the Palestinian Territories, they also face difficulties in terms of access for Arab and/or Palestinian populations who would like to reach them (see Andézian, 2012 on Bethlehem), but also, as in Nazareth, difficulties in terms of dealing with the local power struggles triggered by changing demographic balances between Muslims and Christians (Cohen-Hattab and Shoval, 2007).

II. A multi-situated, transnational and comparative methodology

  • 14  D. Iogna-Prat speaks of miniature “translation” and “rear projection” to the Holy Land in connecti (...)

9In this context, and in order to respond to the research question of this article on the effects of international mobilities on religious sites, several field investigations have been carried out in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Tiberias, and Haifa since 2016 (Figure 1), and in Romans, in Drôme, in 2019. They have allowed the identification of three types of religious places “produced” or co-produced by and for pilgrims and religious tourists: pilgrimage sites, such as in Jerusalem and Galilee which attract the largest flows of visitors, substitute places, which are built when pilgrimage sites are no longer accessible, such as Yardenit, in the south of Tiberias, which is also an important tourist destination, and religious theme parks, such as park of Nazareth, also in Galilee. The joint study of these three types of places is part of a reflection on material and symbolic exchanges between religious places (Bartal et al., 2017; Halbwachs, 1941; Iogna-Prat, 2001)14 and on the transnational “mobility” of these places. It is based on the idea that in order to understand the geopolitical dimension of religious tourism, one cannot limit oneself to a single space or type of place, even when in terms of historical significance, their practices, or their symbolic charges, these places are not completely equivalent or comparable on a one-to-one basis. It is therefore a question of relating objects whose singularity is rigorously observed (Hayat et al., 2018) without, however, seeking “binary oppositions between differences and similarities” (Werner and Zimmermann, 2003, p. 10). The goal is to reveal processes (Bayart, 2008) and to elaborate a vocabulary which can describe the logics of interaction between objects of study, not “in relation to each other”, but “through each other” (Werner and Zimmermann, 2003, p. 36). Religious mobilities are thus seen as the vector of connection between certain places, of their material and symbolic mobility, but also, upstream, of their “production”, in the sense used by H. Lefebvre (1971), by actors who perceive, understand, and experience them.

Figure 1: Location map of the studied areas

Figure 1: Location map of the studied areas

Caroline Rozenholc-Escobar, 2019

III. Local “places of mobility” co-produced by international mobilities

10This production in the symbolic and material ownership and existence of these places which is sometimes competing or even contradictory, invites further conversations with their different actors (such as inhabitants, promoters, pilgrims, tourists, guides, and public authorities). These discussions will be particularly useful in understanding places such as Jerusalem, which attract flows of extremely diverse visitors in terms of geographical origin and religious affiliations. Jerusalem is a densely populated multi-confessional city – E. Aubin-Boltanski (2005) mentions a “a multitude of holy cities in synchronicity” – that is the subject of dispute between the Israeli State and the Palestinian Authority. It is also an eminently touristic destination, as evidenced by the Via Dolorosa where secular and religious, military and policemen, shopkeepers, Christian and Muslim Palestinian inhabitants, Orthodox Jews, and etc. closely coexist. The Via Dolorosa is a 500-meters-long route, which winds through the old city, from the Muslim quarter to the Christian neighborhood. It is marked by “stations” that commemorate the Passion of Jesus and by holy places and churches, some of which were built in the 19th century by foreign powers such as France, to assert their power in Palestine (Trimbur, 1998). The last five of the fourteen total stations of the Via Dolorosa are located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a place powerfully constructed by the devotion and diversity of pilgrims. Some pilgrims faint, rub objects (such as sponges, photographs, coins, etc.) on the so-called Anointing Stone at the entrance of the church, or light candles which they immediately extinguish in order to bring home (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Orthodox pilgrims kissing the Anointing Stone, Jerusalem

Figure 2: Orthodox pilgrims kissing the Anointing Stone, Jerusalem

Rozenholc-Escobar, 2016

  • 15 Two Muslim families, taking turns, have been in charge of opening and closing the gates of the Chur (...)

11These practices occur in a space that is itself managed in a competitive manner by its Greek Orthodox, Franciscan, Armenian, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic, and Ethiopian15 “co-owners”. Additionally, there is the configuration of the place, which obliges visitors to kneel in order to touch the top of the Golgotha or to bend down in order to enter the narrow chapel of the tomb of Jesus, sometimes being pushed or pulled by the Greek monk who regulates the circulation and visiting times. This corporeality of the practices, combined with the acoustic atmosphere (the hubbub of visitors and competing processions) and smell (the incense and the smoke of the candles), which is yet reproduced in a multitude of Ways of the Cross, contribute to “produce” the uniqueness of this place. An eminently local place, the Via Dolorosa is therefore, both a site co-produced by these local users and international visitors, and a “mobile” site.

IV. Places of mobility and mobility of places: a transnational dialectic

12To qualify this type of place where mobilities, particularly international mobilities play a predominant role, we propose the notion of “places of mobility” (Rozenholc, 2017; Barrère and Rozenholc, 2018). This notion formalizes an interpretation of the places through the “mobilitarian paradigm” (Lussault, 2017), and longer merely through duration and location, as is usually the case. These places are “scenes” (Silver and Clarck, 2016), never fixed and inscribed in plural even irreconcilable memorial logics (Hazbun, 2016) of relations and movements: these “strata” that the geographer M. Roncayolo indicated in reference to another Mediterranean city, Marseille. This dynamic approach to places also reflects the idea of places that are inscribed in networks that transcend their sole local issues and are not reduced to the scale and local dimension of the territory. It also allows us to underline the force of attraction and convergence of transnational places.

13This idea of a mobile place combined with that of the mobility of places, is already present in other terms, in Topographie légendaire des Évangiles en Terre Sainte (1941), the work Maurice Halbwachs wrote towards the end of the 1930s, upon his return from Palestine. In this work, he retraces the history of the construction of Christian holy places in Palestine, through material and symbolic exchanges between the original places and their European replicas. For demonstration, he relies on the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem (the Via Dolorosa mentioned above), on which he explains the late fixation in the 15th century (the route and the number of stations has fluctuated over time) by the search for correspondences between Jerusalem and the Holy Circuit of the Franciscans who had made the mental reproduction of the Passion of Jesus into a spiritual exercise, and its European replicas, for which he gives Romans as an example.

V. The European Stations of the Cross: places of substitution

  • 16 “ ‘Le Grand Voyage’ ”, Historical heritage mission of the city of Romans, file:///Users/mwf/Downloa (...)

14This way of the Cross in Romans, also called “Grand Voyage” is located in Drôme. Built in the 16th century on a private initiative – from a cloth merchant, Romanet Boffant, upon his return from the Holy Land – it offers in a topography reminiscent of Jerusalem at the time, an alternative to this pilgrimage which at the time had become too dangerous and costly. It originally (1516) consisted of seven stations and a Calvary built on the model of the Way of the Cross in Fribourg (1504), which itself was built on the plan of the Way of the Cross in Rhodes, which in turn was a replica of the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem16. It has been rebuilt and transformed several times since, and has nowadays, twenty-one stations in the city, leading to a Calvary (with fourteen stations, mirroring the fourteen stations of the Via Dolorosa) and a chapel called the Holy Sepulchre. Some of these stations correspond to events of the Passion and others to places (such as Mount of Olives and Herod’s palace). This Grand Voyage has been very successful from the time of its construction to the point that the Pope granted the pilgrims who frequented it indulgences equivalent to those granted to pilgrims of Jerusalem. From the point of view of the church, Romans is not simply a replica, but a place that makes the Passion of Christ happen there. The homothetic characteristics of Romans are absolute: to carry out the pilgrimage there is equivalent to carrying it out in Jerusalem. However, it was abandoned in the 19th century, before being restored in 2016 and reopened to pilgrims who wander around with lanterns on the night of Good Friday until dawn (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Night-time pilgrimage in Romans

Figure 3: Night-time pilgrimage in Romans

Caroline Rozenholc-Escobar, 2019

15Another example is Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in Poland. Located about 40 kilometers from Krakow, its construction began in 1601 with the building of a chapel modeled on the Holy Sepulchre. The interest of this place is due to both its dimensions (it is today a city in its own right with forty chapels, a basilica, and a convent) and also once again to the reinterpretation of its geography in the light of that of Jerusalem. The hills are renamed Golgotha, Mount of Olives, and Mount Zion or Moriah, and the river Skawinka, Cedron. This superimposition of contexts and practices activates these places by inscribing in them an elsewhere.

  • 17 J. Maltz, 2018, op. cit.

16These two places of substitution which were built by pilgrims returning from Palestine, show very concretely the role of international religious mobilities in the material production of the places and even of the city. They also exemplify this “dialectic” of places that is emphasized by transnational studies, and particularly those that examine religious practices and places (Argyriadis et al., 2014). This dialectic contributes to the “superimposition of contexts”, de-territorialized and relocated, that religious mobilities and, more broadly, international circulations help to produce (Bava 2005; Bava and Capone, 2010; Bennafla, 2005). We can also hypothesize that it is one of the driving forces behind the production of “secondary” religious places and the progressive displacement of Christian pilgrimage, and in particular Protestant pilgrimage, from Israel to the Palestinian Territories; when the idea one has of a place comes up against its reality too strongly; in this case, Israel's modernity and its inscription in earthly contingencies. The founder of the NGO “The Heart of Israel”, which organizes the arrival of evangelical pilgrims in the Jewish settlements of the West Bank, says: “When they land in Tel Aviv, they often tell me that it isn't how they imagined Israel. But when they come out here to the settlements, they say this is exactly how they imagined it17. This quest for a place, by means of the representations that one makes of it, thus contributes through the presence, the voluntary work in the settlements and the financial investments of the pilgrims to legitimize the appropriation of resources, in this case, territorial resources by the religious (Alsayyad, 2011).

17This question of representations, and more importantly of bringing Israel into conformity with the image that some visitors have of it, is also at work at Yardenit, (“Little Jordan” in Hebrew), the “official site” of the baptism of Jesus by Saint John the Baptist. Even though pilgrims from all over the world flock there to be baptized in the same spot where Jesus was (such as J. Bolsonaro in 2016), the site was actually built from scratch by the Israeli government. In 1981, the Likud (from B. Netanyahu’s party) minister of Tourism (A. Sharir, followed by G.Patt in 1981) decided to mitigate the closure to the public of the “traditional site” of Qasr el Yahud located near Jericho in the West Bank. The state – realizing the touristic potential of such a site and its economic benefits for the region – decided to build a replica a few kilometers from Tiberias, on the land of Kibbutz Kvutzat Kinneret. Therefore, Yardenit emerged from the ground, with cement ramps to facilitate entering the water, amphitheaters for baptismal services, changing rooms, refreshment stands, a souvenir shop, and a rental service for towels and tunics for immersion in the Jordan river. Its success is undeniable with over 500,000 yearly visitors according to its operators. However, it is interesting to note that Qasr el Yahud which was closed for military reasons in 1967, was put back on the pilgrimage map with the visit of John Paul II in 2000. As a result of global geopolitics and international mobilities, the site has therefore gradually reopened to the public with the redevelopment of the river access by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority, followed by the redevelopment of the site itself, once de-mined, by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism in 2011.

VI. Theme parks: secondary places of religion

18There is a third type of place to which the reflection on the geopolitical and commercial and/or authentic dimensions of these “primary” and “secondary” places of religious tourism can be extended. These are religious theme parks, of which Nazareth Biblical Village in Nazareth is a striking example. Located in a city that is already a center of Christianity, Nazareth Biblical Village is half an open-air museum and half a religious theme park which opened in June 2000, under the initiative of the medical director of Nazareth hospital (Dr. Nakhle Bishara) and the American producer, Mr. Hostetler who would raise the funds necessary for its realization18. The Village is built on a land that belongs and adjoins the hospital and offers the possibility of visiting a replica of a farm and a Jewish village from the first century of our era, along with its synagogue “where Jesus could have officiated19 which is “brought to life” by Palestinian extras (performers) and international volunteer guides, at the price of fifty Shekels (about twelve Euros) (Figure 4). The aim of this “living museum” is to help visitors contextualize the parables of Jesus through explanations given during the visits about the daily life of the villagers of that time and region, as demonstrated by the actors depicting farmers, shepherds, carpenters or weavers. Olive oil, hyssop, and myrrh are produced on the spot, and sold in the souvenir shop of the Village. All of these elements contribute to the incorporation and diffusion of the experience of returning home.

Figure 4: “Abraham and Sarah” presented by one of the guides of the Nazareth Biblical Village

Figure 4: “Abraham and Sarah” presented by one of the guides of the Nazareth Biblical Village

Caroline Rozenholc-Escobar, 2018

19Some comments on the Internet after these visits reflect the intensity of the experience and the religiosity attributed to this place, which visibly allows visitors to deepen their understanding of the language and of the “land of Jesus” more than other places, which are certainly more symbolically charged, but less “encapsulated” and more transformed by 2000 years of history. Moreover, the remains of a wine press, an irrigation system, and an ancient watchtower excavated on the site are all elements that allow visitors to “live and see the time and life of Jesus”. Thus, for some visitors, this make-believe place thus compensates for the deceptions that religious places can provoke, a country and a landscape where the signs of modernity and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are omnipresent (Collins-Kreiner et al., 2006). These signs are also there if we pay attention to this setup where Arab inhabitants of Nazareth, Christians and Muslims, play Jewish characters, to embody the vision and values of an international board (the Nazareth Trust) located in Scotland.

  • 20 It is interesting to note that this socio-spatial form also attracts Confucianism (Haw Par Villa in (...)

20Nazareth Village is in fact part of a long-established institutional complex in the city which encompasses a hospital founded in 1861 by a physician from Edinburgh, and is nowadays one of the largest hospitals in the region, a nursing school (1924), the village (2000), and a reception center for international volunteers, all with the same vision – “to heal in the name of Jesus” – which is respectively conveyed through care, education, and religious edutainment. This collusion and the location of this “living museum” in the city question the effects of the diffusion to public spaces of a regime of spatiality that is specific to the private spaces of the religious. Will the successful attendance, the multiplication, and globalization of these parks not contribute to the diffusion of specific, but generic20 urban forms and values, where sacred and profane (Eliade, 1965) would merge in a “lived religion” (Bielo, 2016)? The first interviews conducted in Nazareth (2018) with the actors who built and operated this place (constructing and maintaining the buildings, running the farm, growing crops, and caring for animals, etc.) point to disagreements between Nazareth Christians and foreign contributors who define themselves as Anabaptist “true believers”.

VII. The Holy Land in the United States: an ancient circularity

21Nevertheless, theme parks, even religious ones, are not a new reality. Invented in the United States, some are old (Palestine Park built in 1874 or Holy Land USA built in 1940), but most are recent (Heritage USA, Holy Land Experience, and Tierra Santa in Argentina) and founded at the turn of the millennium, or even very recent (such as the Ark Encounter which opened its doors in 2016) and are becoming increasingly numerous. Therefore, J. Bielo (2016) has mapped two hundred places that “materialize” the Bible and give form, space, and matter to the Old and New Testaments as well as to their human or non-human actors since animals and plants also play an important role. It is also interesting to note that in these parks, it is no longer the Via Dolorosa or Jerusalem that is made mobile and replicated but the entire Holy Land. Consequently, Palestine Park which was originally built with the intention of teaching Catechism (biblical history and geography), allows (allowed) visitors to do the pilgrimage to the Holy Land without leaving the USA; with lake Chautauqua, near which the park is located, acting as the Mediterranean Sea. Hence, landing there would allow “setting foot” on a miniaturized Holy Land (about a hundred meters long) and traversed by a river likened to the Jordan. Here we return to the question of the landscape and topography, but also that of scale: and overwhelming and literally reductive vision of a territory that we seek to grasp as a whole for experiential and practical purposes, what Moal-Ulvoas (2016) refers to as religious edutainment (a contraction of education and entertainment). Two centuries apart, the same process is at work with the Holy Land Experience (2001) built in Orlando, the city of Walt Disney World (1971), and Universal Studios (1991).

22Holy Land Experience is defined as a “biblical theme park” on the Old and New Testaments on its website. It proposes to visitors a variety of “places to live” which are animated by actors, and “places to see”. Thus, visitors can stroll through a market held by merchants in clothing of the period, take part in the Last Supper, meet Jesus, witness his crucifixion and then his resurrection, but also participate in religious services and pray in an impressive two thousand seats Church of all Nations. Among the “places to see” visitors can find a reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple, a monumental model of ancient Jerusalem, and a Jesus Boat, a replica of a first-century fisherman’s boat found in the Sea of Galilee. This replica raises the question of the significance of “authentic” elements in a simulated setting and their synecdochic power. This is also the case of these stones excavated from the mountains of Israel and displayed to be “touched with love” since “they were part of the land that Jesus inhabited, loved, and touched” as the adjacent panel indicates. The recalling power of these two artifacts, one authentic and the other replicated, is invoked to materialize Israel, its geography, and its biblical history. These material and symbolic circulations from Israel to the USA branch out further if we consider the possibility offered by the park to send locally produced elements to Israel. In fact, small colored papers are made available daily for visitors to write their prayers on before inserting them between the stucco stones of the replica of the Wailing wall in Jerusalem. Subsequently, these papers are collected and sent to Israel on a monthly basis, in order to be placed between the stones of the real Wailing Wall. Bielo (2016, p. 10) considers these prayers materialized in writing a paper as forging a connection between this living biblical museum in Orlando and the sites in the Holy Land which inspired the recreations in Florida. These prayers also participate in the Christian appropriation of this Islamic-Jewish space and the struggles it provokes.

VIII. Materialization of the Bible and confusion of scales

23For some researchers, these secondary places contribute to reinforcing the incorporation and affirmation of identities (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2009). By mixing the religious or spiritual experience with an economic, even commercial, educational, and recreational dimension, they offer a “total experience” (Sun and Uysal, 1994) to which the confusion of spatial (models, artifacts, and “life-size” reproductions) and temporal scales contributes. Therefore, we can wonder through “Jerusalem” and reach “Bethlehem” in a few steps or see Jesus lavishing his blessings at the Holy Land Experience, all the while Abraham with his sheep, and Joseph at his workbench, attend their occupations at Nazareth Biblical Village. In this desire to render the biblical text tangible, it seems that it is indeed this hybridity between a physical experience that mixes religion, entertainment, piety, play, commerce, and devotion that makes sense to visitors (Bielo, 2016). Moreover, this hybridity seems to extend the connection that architect Rem Koolhaas has identified between theme parks (the one at Coney Island) – as an experimental spatial form – and the city factory (New York at the very beginning of the 20th century). For this reason, religious tourism constitutes an urban dimension to be reintegrated into the analysis of city tourism (Duhamel and Knafou, 2007; Fagnoni and Gravari-Barbas, 2013) for the benefit of the middle classes (Brosius, 2010). Likewise, the study of Nazareth Biblical Village – as a substitute or complementary and therefore secondary place but produced on the very location of the original religious sites – shows that the issue is something other than the possibility of accessing the religious in an Israeli-Palestinian space where security is not guaranteed.

Conclusion: the geopolitical dimension of religious tourism

24In conclusion, this article will have allowed the possibility of demonstrating how religious mobilities (as a type of mobility) produce different types of sites (pilgrimage sites, “substitution” sites, and religious theme parks), to point out certain material and symbolic relations that link these places, and to analyze he way in which they are linked to places produced elsewhere (such as Europe or the United States). These links are created by material and symbolic exchanges of which pilgrims and religious tourists are the agents, and by visiting the pilgrimage sites, by replicating them at home, by completing the experience through their visit, when it is the case of religious theme parks, but also by circulating the images and the stories they tell via the internet which is in turn multiplied. Therefore, tourism, especially religious tourism, is not an apolitical category of actors and practices. On the contrary, it complements the usual categories of politics in order to operate, in this space as well, the shift from “methodological nationalism” towards a “methodological cosmopolitanism” (Beck, 2002), which is particularly necessary when one is interested in the transnational effects of mobilities.

25This article also wished to reinscribe the Israeli-Palestinian space in a broader discussion on the effect of religious mobilities, as L. Chantre et al. (2104) show for the pilgrimage that the diplomatic influence, the policies of influence, and the financing of local or national authorities still serve. Hence, as it is the case elsewhere, religious tourism in the Israeli-Palestinian space generates flows that participate “in the transformation of social relations, representations, norms, and institutions” (Boukhris and Chapuis, 2016, p. 2). Religious mobilities are eminently geopolitical when they function as a lever for territorial and economic development and for the political repositioning of individuals and groups. As such, they participate in a differentiated and unequal manner for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, in the “production of space” (Lefebvre, 1974) – its perception, conception and the way it is experienced – and particularly in the urban space (Deffontaines, 1948; Racine, 1993) that bring them together.

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1 Here, Geopolitics refers to both international relations engaged by cross-border mobilities, and power struggles over a small or large territory (Lacoste, 2012, p. 27)

2 Examples include the six million Christian pilgrims to Lourdes each year or the one hundred million Hindus who gather on the banks of the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in India, which is held every three years in turn in the cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik.

3 The Baha’i religion was born in Persia in the 19th century, but today its’ spiritual center is located in Haifa, in Israel. An entire complex has been developed there over the past century, to the point of becoming one of the biggest markers of this city. It has been inscribed in UNESCO’s WHS list as “Bahai Gardens”.

4 Rabbi Y. Eckstein reports that $1.4 billion has been received from Christian donors for Israel and the Jewish people through the Chicago and Jerusalem-based “International Fellowship for Christians and Jews” (Til Kingdom Come, M. Zinshtein, documentary, 2020).

5 “And we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the Evangelicals. You know, it’s amazing with that: the Evangelicals are more excited about that than the Jewish people”, In this public statement (August 2020, Wisconsin), he merged two strong acts of his administration: the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6, 2017, and the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14, 2018.

6 Belhassen and Ebel (2009) show that the relationship between Israel and “Christian Zionists” was strengthened with the coming to power of B. Netanyahu in 1996 and the establishment of the parliamentary group Christian Allies Caucus in 2004. The CAC operates through the Ministry of Tourism to “strengthen cooperation between Christian leaders and the State of Israel, support the work of Christian organizations in Israel and make their work known to parliamentary members” (

7 “(b)reaking into the Arab tour guide monopoly became one of the Zionist’s biggest challenges (…) The Zionist Trade and Industry Department also decided to open a professional course for Jewish tour guides (…) in 1922” (Cohen-Hattab, 2004, p. 72).

8 M. Le Priol, “Pilgrimages to the Holy Land in solidarity with Palestine”, La Croix, ed. online from 22 February 2015 and L. Zecchini, “Palestinian and political Via dolorosa”, Le Monde, ed. Online 20 April 2011.

9 On this subject, see the survey by J. Maltz (2018) which shows, for example that American evangelicals have injected nearly sixty-five million dollars into these settlements over the past ten years, “Inside the Evangelical Money Flowing into the West Bank”, Ha'aretz, ed. online 9 December 2018 or C. Hutt (2012) about the Kol Ha’tor project that welcomes Jewish visitors and Christian pilgrims to Jewish settlements of the Palestinian Territories.

10 Also widely mentioned by his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Appointed in 2016, Friedman is also the president of the American Friends of Beth El, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

11 In recent years, numbers are on the rise again. The Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs indicated 3.54 million visitors in 2013, 3.6 in 2017, and over 4 million in 2018.

12 51% in 2017, but 67% in 2011 according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

13 Hutt (2012) shows that many Jewish religious places were created from 1948, without becoming - including the Western Wall – sites of international pilgrimage.

14  D. Iogna-Prat speaks of miniature “translation” and “rear projection” to the Holy Land in connection with the loca sancta, those “vials” which contained oil or earth from Jerusalem and were shaped like the city. R. Bartal (2018) uses this term to qualify the “export” and reuse of materials brought from the Holy Land and the Holy Sepulcher, especially in France, between 500 and 1500.

15 Two Muslim families, taking turns, have been in charge of opening and closing the gates of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on a daily basis since the 1767 status quo on Christian holy places.

16 “ ‘Le Grand Voyage’ ”, Historical heritage mission of the city of Romans, file:///Users/mwf/Downloads/FOCUS-romans-web_light.pdf

17 J. Maltz, 2018, op. cit.

18 “Mike Hostetler leaves Nazareth”, 22 June 2005, Come and See. The Christian website in Nazareth,


20 It is interesting to note that this socio-spatial form also attracts Confucianism (Haw Par Villa in Singapore), Buddhism (Suoi Tien Park in Ho Chi Minh), Islam (Taman Tamadun Islam in Malaysia, Hui Culture Park in China, a future Quran Park in Dubai) and Hinduism (Moal-Ulvoas, 2016).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Location map of the studied areas
Crédits Caroline Rozenholc-Escobar, 2019
Fichier image/jpeg, 38k
Titre Figure 2: Orthodox pilgrims kissing the Anointing Stone, Jerusalem
Crédits Rozenholc-Escobar, 2016
Fichier image/jpeg, 6,0M
Titre Figure 3: Night-time pilgrimage in Romans
Crédits Caroline Rozenholc-Escobar, 2019
Fichier image/jpeg, 5,2M
Titre Figure 4: “Abraham and Sarah” presented by one of the guides of the Nazareth Biblical Village
Crédits Caroline Rozenholc-Escobar, 2018
Fichier image/jpeg, 6,8M
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Caroline Rozenholc-Escobar, « Implications, actors, and geopolitical levers of tourism. Israel / Palestine: what religious places tell us », Via [En ligne], 19 | 2021, mis en ligne le 26 juillet 2021, consulté le 28 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Caroline Rozenholc-Escobar

Lecturer in geography, UMR 7218 LAVUE, ENSA Paris-Val de Seine

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Soha Ghezili

Università della Svizzera italiana

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