Israel's Tourism Ministry is preparing to welcome tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims over the Christmas season, finishing up a record-breaking year as the number of tourists reaches 3.5 million people in 2017.
A 20 percent increase in Christian visitors is expected over the holiday season compared to last year, according to Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who attributed the record growth to his ministry's ongoing international tourism campaign.
"Israel invites the faithful from all religions to pray, worship and visit all the holy sites in Israel in freedom and security," he said, according to The Jerusalem Post.
"I am proud to take this opportunity to announce that this year we have broken all previous records for incoming tourism, and are set to end 2017 with a record 3.5 million tourists â€“ half a million more than the previous record," he added.
In anticipation of the arrival of Christian pilgrims, the ministry announced that it will offer free shuttle service on buses every 30 minutes between Jerusalem and Bethlehem beginning on Christmas Eve through Christmas Day. The Jerusalem Post noted that there may be changes to the schedule due to demand.
"Buses will leave every 30 minutes near the Carta parking lot [opposite Jaffa Gate and near Mamilla Boulevard]," the ministry said.
"The bus will also stop near the entrance to the Mar Elias Monastery, and at the Rosmarin Junction, before continuing via Rachel's Crossing to Bethlehem and then back again," it added.
A fireworks display and a parade are expected to take place in the city of Nazareth on Saturday, and a mass will be held in the Basilica of the Annunciation on the following day.
The ministry's statistics revealed that 2.9 million tourists visited Israel in 2016, and more than half of them were Christians and about 120,000 of the tourists in December that year were Christian pilgrims.
Thirty-eight percent of the Christian tourists last year identified as Catholics. Twenty-eight percent were Protestants and another 28 percent identified as Orthodox.
Seventy-three percent of Protestant tourists identified as evangelicals, which comprised 13 percent of all tourists. Twenty-three percent of all tourists described the purpose of their visit to the Holy Land as "a pilgrimage," according to Breaking Israel News.
Most of the Christian tourists visited Jerusalem, with about 40 percent visiting Tel Avivâ€“Jaffa. According to the ministry, the most visited sites in the Holy Land were the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jewish Quarter, Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, Mount of Olives, Capernaum, Church of the Annunciation, and the City of David.