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Bringing foot traffic to Israel's 'Jesus Trail'

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(Read caption) Tourists visit the Church of the Transfiguration in Nazareth. Pope Benedict’s visit here last year drew attention to the northern Israeli city, and gourmet restaurants are raising its profile among secular Israelis.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Hiking the lush Galilean hills six years ago, Israeli Jew Maoz Inon saw a wealth of unrealized potential for Christian travelers. Although Jesus is said to have turned water into wine there in Kfar Kana (identified by Christians as the town of Cana) and delivered his Sermon on the Mount (on the Mount of Beatitudes by the Sea of Galilee), no information on either was readily available in English. A year later, Mr. Inon opened the Fauzi Azar Inn for backpackers in a majestic house with soaring, painted ceilings in Nazareth’s Old City. At first he used the hostel as a base for day trips he led around the Galilee. Last March, he published the full-color “Jesus Trail” tour book in English, complete with driving directions and trail maps.

As Israel's largest Arab city, Nazareth was a center of political protest against Israeli policy for the first years of Israel’s existence. Little was invested in repairing the Old City. Local tourism officials claim Israeli tourism brochures instead directed visitors to Jewish towns and sites in the Galilee.

Nazareth Mayor Ramiz Jeraisy says Inon’s inn is part of a wave of tourism development that has seen a doubling of hotel capacity (now 1,300 rooms) in the past decade. Pope Benedict’s visit last year drew attention to the northern Israeli city, and gourmet restaurants are raising its profile among secular Israelis.

“On the weekends, the city is full,” says Mr. Jeraisy. The Israeli government has pledged to fund tourism police and to grant tax benefits to businesses. Jeraisy says he is trying to interest investors in developing six new hotels. Next March, local officials are hoping for an influx of tourists celebrating the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel is said to have told Mary she would bear the son of God.

Inon says he is already seeing a turnaround in Nazareth’s image. In 2000, the “Lonely Planet” guidebook said Nazareth “is recommended only for pilgrims,” he says. “Now ‘Lonely Planet’ writes that Nazareth is a highlight.”

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