From Dan even unto Beersheba there is no room in the inn anywhere in the Holy Land this week as approximately 100,000 tourists and pilgrims have taken just about every spare bed in the country for the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter.
Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport is a mad house. Ocean liners jostle for berths in the port of Haifa and the Old City of Jerusalem is a babble of foreign tongues as tourists surge through the narrow streets in search of snactity and souvenirs.
The Ministry of Tourism has taken to monitoring daily hotel arrivals, departures and cancellations in hopes of avoiding the chaos of overbookings in what has become, for this week anyway, a twice-and sometimes thrice-promised land.
Tourism in Israel, which reaches its annual peak at this time of year, has never been more booming. The Ministry of Tourism is expecting, at a conservation estimate, no fewer than 900,000 visitors this year. In a country of 3 million, that means that one out of every four persons in Israel this year will be a foreigner.
Israel has finally recovered from the tourist doldrums that followed the 1973 Middle East war when a worldwide recession and fears for security caused a sharp drop in visitors from overseas.
Last year 800,000 visitors came to Israel, fro the first time surpassing the previous record of 727,000 set in 1972.
Tens of thousands of Jews from the North American and European diaspora clebrated the beginning of Passover Saturday night with friends and relatives in a realization of the ancient and haunting Sedar prayer," and speedily lead us, the branches of thy vine, redeemed home to Zion in song. Next year in Jerusalem."
One hundred Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union arrived at Ben Gurion airport on Friday in time for Passover.
The crush of visitors caused one tour operator to say that if Moses were leading the children of Israel into the Promised Land today, "We might have to ask him to hold his group over in Egypt for a few days until we can find hotel space."
As for the Christians, there are 30,000 religious pilgrams expected in town this week for Easter - coming from as far away as South America and Ethiopia. The figure does not include ordinary Christian tourists who happen to be visiting Israel just now. But bona fide pilgrims who are arriving by air in 637 organized groups and in six cruise ships, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
Friday and Saturday the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was crowded as religious Christians on their knees kissed the stone where Jesus' body was prepared for burial and yesterday hundreds of marchers followed the traditional Palm Sunday path of Christ over the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem.
Arab shopkeepers in the Old City are doing a land-office business selling souvenirs in a tradition that goes back more than 1,000 years. Even before the crusades, early Christian monks used to complain that there were enough splinters of the "true cross" for sale in Jerusalem to rival the forests of northern Europe.
The Ministry of Tourism has recently completed a master plan that will allow for a maximum number of 1.7 million tourists annually by the year 1985. The emphasis is going to be on moderately priced hotels and accomodations and, due to a change in charter regulations, the number of charter flights has increased from 17 per week last year to 26 week this year.
Although the populated portions of the occupied West Bank are not included in the development plan, new hotels are being planned for the Golan Heights, which were captured from Syria in 1967, and in the eastern Sinai Desert down to Sharm el Sheik, which Israel captured from Egypt. The Arabs have said that these lands must be returned if there is to be a lasting peace.
When asked about the political implications of the tourist master plan a ministry spokesman said, "We will just have to wait and see."