Pilgrims’ Flock to Jerusalem on the Rise

For Alem Kebede, a 75 years old woman, a journey to Jerusalem is not like any other trip. It is an experience whose joys and sorrows one cherishes, remembers and recounts throughout one’s life.

It seems that her story is one of fiction rather than real life when she narrates the experiences of her visit to Israel with her husband in 2012.

”Every time I go to Jerusalem, I don’t only appreciate the place but also remember my husband in tears during our first trip. He died a year after our return from this trip,” she said.

She has scheduled another trip to Jerusalem for the coming Orthodox Easter Holiday to visit Bethlehem, the Ethiopian monasteries of Debre Selem Eyesus and Der Sultan, the Mount of Olives and Mount Zion. The visit is scheduled to take six days.

Legend has it that Ethiopian monks and priests have travelled to Israel barefoot to visit and observe and conduct religious holidays and festivals in the land believed to be the holiest site on earth among followers of all Christian denominations, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox alike. Furthermore, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has had a church in Jerusalem for more than 1,500 years.

It was rare to take pilgrims out of the country at the time when the 50-year-old Jerusalem Memorial Association (JMA) began to register members to facilitate trips to Jerusalem. Being the only organisation in the country that facilitated travels to Jerusalem, JMA registered many people that were interested in joining the Association.

It was a fantastic experience for Ejigayehu Beyene, 74, who was a member of the Association, to get the chance to fly to Jerusalem a few years after the Association began the journeys.

As the years passed, many things have drastically changed. In recent times, both local and franchise tour and travel agents are operating in the country. These agents take pilgrims to Jerusalem, Israel, which is considered as a travel destination for high-income earners and elderly people.

Currently, the Ministry of Culture & Tourism (MoCT) has licensed over 300 tour and travel agents to operate across the country.

One of the revived local agencies is Keraniyo in Jerusalem, founded by Ejigayehu, who was prompted to open her company by her travel experience and her 12 years of service as the deputy president of JMA.

She opened Keraniyo in Jerusalem in 2009, targeting pilgrims travelling to Isreal.

At the beginning of her job as a travel agent to Israel, she could only organise one journey a year, having only 20 to 30 travellers. But now, her annual trips are growing fourfold, and the number of pilgrims has risen to 250 to 450 a trip.

“We plan to work on inbound tours to bring religious tourists to Ethiopia from places outside the nation,” she said. “How unlucky we are. We have to remain quiet as to the reason, which remains undisclosed to the public.”

There are travel agents seen in every corner of the city trying to sell their services and to get a foot in the door, which may not be easy. Most of these agents charge the travellers between 70,000 Br to 80,000 Br.

The fee covers all the costs of the travellers, including airfare, accommodation, meal, and travel expenses at the destination.

In addition to the fee, the travel agents expect their customers to pay 1,400 Br to 1,800 Br in registration fees. The traveller stays from four days to two weeks at the destination.

The travel agents partner with Ethiopian Airlines to take their travellers to “the Promised Land”, Jerusalem. This year the Airline charges 1,348 dollars a person for a two-way flight.

The partners in Jerusalem of the local travel agents arrange all the facilities, including accommodation and tour programs.

“Our duties are to register pilgrims and to process the visa and documents of the travellers,” Ejigayehu told Fortune.

However, the game changer, Asrat Travel Agency, came into the scene, cutting the fee by half. Established almost four years by a former area manager at Ethiopian Airlines in Jerusalem, Asrat charges travellers 35,000 Br.

“Asrat’s move has played a great role in making journeys to Jerusalem popular by making it affordable for the masses,” said Solomon Tafere, the chief executive officer at Getsemani Travel Agent, one of the prominent agents in the city.

Agents site difficulties in managing the tours, health issues of the pilgrims and the travellers who use the journey as a means to migrate.

Out of the total, about 95pc of them are real pilgrims, according to Solomon. Young travellers who do not have prior travel experiences are those who use the travel to migrate to Israel.

“To avoid this risk, we have begun to sign an agreement with travellers for them to bring collateral, like a house or vehicle,” Solomon told Fortune.

To increase the number of their clients, the agents have been introducing various new packages, such as launching a tour from Ethiopia to Jordan, Jerusalem and then Egypt, since last year April.

Some also aim at bringing Israeli tourists to Ethiopia. During the current fiscal year, four groups of Israeli tourists, with 25 to 45 members each, have visited Ethiopia through Getsemani.

“We aim to bring Israeli tourists who have Ethiopian origins,” said Solomon.

The Jewish community in Ethiopia, the Beta Israel (House of Israel), has existed for at least 15 centuries. Most members of that community were allowed to migrate to “the Promised land”, moving to Israel with their families.

Though Ethiopians travel abroad for pilgrimage, the country also has some religious sites that can potentially attract both domestic and international tourists.

About 500 to 900 tourists visit Ethiopia annually through the connection and agreement with Ethiopian Airlines, according to the management of Yod Abyssinia Tour & Travel.

The rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Al Nejashi Mosque, and the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum are some of the religious sites in the country.

MoCT, which was formed to promote the nation’s tourism, is working to increase the number of tourists flocking to the country for religious travel, according to Gezahagn Abate, communications director at the Ministry.

Though there is no registered data which shows the numbers of pilgrims that come to Ethiopia for religious purposes, last year the country received a total of 870,597 tourists, which generated 3.2 billion dollars of revenue for the nation.

Ethiopian pilgrims travelling abroad are also promoting the religious sites of the country, according to Ejigayehu of Keraniyo in Jerusalem.






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