Abigail Klein Leichman
April 22, 2012, Updated September 10, 2012

Faithful Elvis fans know that the three Grammys won by “The King” weren’t for “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Hound Dog.” They were for two gospel songs, “How Great Thou Art” (1968 and 1975) and “He Touched Me” (1973).

Now, 35 years after Elvis Presley’s death, three of the gospel backup singers who shared his stage will accompany fans on the first-ever Elvis Presley Holy Land Tour. The May 12-21, 2013 tour is planned by the newly created Israel Theme Tours in cooperation with Elvis Presley Enterprises in Tennessee.

One of the highlights of the trip will be a private gospel performance by the three — Joe Moscheo, Terry Blackwood and Bill Baize — on a cruise boat on the Sea of Galilee.

“The artists were excited to do this to commemorate Elvis’ love of Christianity and God. They had never had been to Israel before,” says Toronto resident Joe Amaral.

He co-founded Israel Theme Tours in September 2011 with entertainment publicist Brian Mayes, with the idea of attracting participants by having celebrities come along.

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The Elvis tour, limited to 100 people, is expected to appeal to the many evangelical Christian and Catholic Elvis fans in the United States, says Amaral, a Christian minister, author, TV producer, tour guide and Israeli archaeology buff who last year won the Israeli Ministry of Tourism’s Faithful Ambassador Award.

Seeing the religious sites

Mayes has pledged that the tour will not be “cheesy.” It’s focused on religious sites and experiences in Jerusalem; Bethlehem; Nazareth; the Roman-era port city of Caesarea; Mount Carmel, Tiberius, the Dead Sea, Masada and Ein Gedi. Participants will have the opportunity to be baptized in the Jordan River as well.

In the evenings, the tourists will listen to panel discussions with the gospel performers, whom Amaral predicted will serve up some impromptu performances, perhaps in concert with Israeli performers.

But the closing dinner is all about Elvis. It will take place at Elvis Inn, a kitschy roadside diner/gas station just west of Jerusalem housing 728 pieces of Elvis memorabilia collected by an Israeli fan. In the parking lot is a larger-than-life statue of Presley. For entertainment, Amaral hopes to book an Elvis impersonator from Tel Aviv.

‘Normalizing’ Israel

Amaral says his motivation for Israel Theme Tours “really wasn’t about the money, but about normalizing Israel. I want people to see Israel like any other destination for a vacation, where you can do anything including skydiving. I’m tired of how the Western media puts Israel in such a negative light and I said to Brian that if we could get celebrities to commit to come, they could show the normal and vibrant part of the country.”

Mayes has often worked with Elvis Presley Enterprises, and it just so happened that the company was looking to phase out its Elvis cruise to the Bahamas and offer something new and different. When he presented Amaral’s idea, it was a hit.

Leading up to the Elvis tour will be the Howie D Backstreet Tour in September, featuring Backstreet Boy Howie Dorough, and another Israel trip in October with Christian Latino singers Jaci Velasquez and Nic Gonzales.

Israel tourism company International Heritage Tours will handle the trip arrangements.

“We’re putting Israel in that good light, showing tourists how modern, fun, and clean and safe it is,” says Amaral.

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