Traveling is quite often a special occasion. For people traveling for spiritual reasons, it’s even more so. By Geri Bain
Nearly one in 10 (8.3 percent) outbound leisure travelers has gone abroad on a faith-based vacation, and about one third (35 percent) are likely to take a religious vacation at some point, according to the most recent TravelStyles survey commissioned by Globus. The repeat factor is astounding; 85 percent of those surveyed who’d taken a religious vacation planned to do so again, and the total market potential as of 2011 was estimated at 16.3 million Americans.
Globus, which launched its faith-based travel division in 2004 and added Cosmos tours to its offerings a few years ago, saw this year’s faith-based bookings grow 30 percent year-on-year. “Our best year yet,” says Joanna Dyer, director, groups & emerging markets for the Globus family of brands.
Homeric Tours, which estimates the worldwide faith-based tourism market at about $4bn in total sales worldwide, is also seeing growing demand. The segment seems resistant to the daily challenges of online individual booking, commission changes, and so on. “Primarily, this is because faith followers prefer to travel with a group, which gives a higher profit just by the sheer number of people traveling,” says John A. Klados, vice president of sales. Collette and Trafalgar are among other major tour operators that offer faith-based travel.
In 2014, recognizing that 37 percent of National Tour Association members offer faith-based travel products and services, the association created a new division, the Faith Travel Association (FTA), which provides directories of faith leaders and faith travel suppliers as well as networking opportunities and various other resources.
Follow your leader
Critical to success is matching the experience and tour operator to the group faith leader’s goals for the trip. Each denomination has its own points of interest, focus and in some cases, dietary requirements. Spiritual journeys are never just about seeing the sites; it’s important to allow time for fellowship and bonding, religious services and/or cultural exchanges along the way.
“For some leaders, the trip is primarily about letting the congregation experience their faith in holy pilgrimage sites; for others, it’s a chance to connect with those of the same or different faith, to do humanitarian work or experience their faith through nature and God’s creation,” says Paul Larsen, president of Ed-Ventures, which specializes in educational and religious tours.
“Agents have to be aware of each group’s needs in terms of dietary and religious requirements,” says Aziz Abu Sarah, co-owner & CEO of Mejdi Tours, which curates Jewish, Muslim, Christian and inter-faith programs in the Holy Land and beyond. “Jewish and Muslim groups are among those with specific dietary requirements. Plus, for Muslim groups, we need to set aside five times a day for prayer. Some Jewish groups can’t travel on the Sabbath and also may require prayer times during the day. The tour guide can’t see those things as frustrations; they have to be integral to the program. Plus, you need to be aware of when religious sites will be closed for holy days.”
Where to go
The Holy Land, while its key sites are a bit different for each sect, is the perennial favorite for Jews, Christians and Muslims. It’s the logical first trip for most faith groups, and many return more than once. For Catholics, Italy and the Vatican are also vital.
“Faith-based travelers are often motivated by specific events,” says Globus’ Dyer. “This year (2017), for instance, is the 500-year anniversary of Martin Luther and the Reformation, increasing bookings to Germany, and the anniversary of the appearance of the Apparitions in Fatima, boosting visits to Portugal.
“Next year, we’re gearing up for the anniversary of the Apparitions in Lourdes, France, and, we’re already taking bookings for the once-in-a-decade Passion Play in Oberammergau in 2020,” concludes Dyer.
Among other upcoming faith-related events agents should be aware of are the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel (2018), Catholic World Youth Day in Panama, Jan. 22–27, 2019, and the World Meeting of Families Aug. 21–26, 2018 in Dublin, Ireland. “And, any announced travels of Pope Francis will increase travel to that area. For example, the Pope plans to visit Ireland during the World Meeting of Families in August 2018,” says Ed-Ventures’ Larsen. In addition to increased travel related to these events, Larsen has recently seen an increase in Jewish heritage tours, including trips to Europe to visit Second World War sites.
Not all faith travel leads to overseas travel, either. Sight & Sound Theaters (Lancaster, Pa., and Branson, Mo.) produce Bible stories live on stage as domestic faith travel options, as do trips to local state parks or nearby mountains, lakes or beaches, that offer nature as a backdrop for faith travel and spiritual experiences, Larsen notes.
“Wherever you travel, it’s the connections with people, and not stones, that travelers respond to,” stresses Sarah. “Mejdi Tours provides opportunities for authentic cross-faith and cross-cultural exposure — in many cases using dual-guide, dual-narrative programs and unique access. For example, a Muslim group might visit the Western Wall with a rabbi and have a Shabbat dinner with an orthodox family; a Jewish group might meet with a Palestinian imam who can answer spiritual questions; and a highlight for many Christian groups is a visit to a Jewish institute where a rabbi illustrates how Jews study their religious text in groups. In Israel, there might be a dinner with a Palestinian family. Because we’re sensitive and respectful to local people and pay them fairly, our clients are treated with warmth.”
Finding the Pied Pipers
For agents, marketing faith-based travel can often start with their own place of worship. In some cases, their congregation may already be traveling every year as a group, and may or may not already be working with a travel agent. In other cases, there’s a valuable opportunity to illustrate what faith travel can do for the congregation.
“The first trip with a group is always the hardest to sell,” says Richard Haymaker, director of business development for the upmarket Viking Travel’s faith-based travel division. “It takes time to develop relationships with spiritual leaders, and those are the basis for this market. Viking Travel now sends hundreds of people on faith-based trips every year.”
Marge Santo, who often leads Viking Travel’s Christian group tours, says that faith travel creates a special bond between the faith leader and the congregation. “It helps if you’re on a faith journey as well. I often set up prayer partners, we read scripture and sing together, and many priests will tie-in scripture readings connected to each place. By the end of a trip, the group feels like a family,” she says.
Haymaker says part of his job is to convince spiritual leaders that by leading a trip, they can affect their parishioners in ways that they couldn’t otherwise. “We see that again and again. Once they’ve traveled with us and see how life changing it is for their congregations, they’re sold, and once they’re sold, the word of mouth is tremendous. It’s also recession-proof because people will spend resources on a trip led by their priest or rabbi that they wouldn’t for a trip to the beach or somewhere that might feel indulgent. Describing one priest who leads faith-based trips to different destinations every year, Haymaker notes, “If he said, ‘let’s go to Mars,’ they’d sign up.”