From pilgrimages and missionary trips to spiritual retreats and religious sightseeing, faith travel is a varied but complex market to crack, says Alex Coxon
Religious travel isn’t a new phenomenon. The word ‘pilgrimage’ takes its origins from the Latin peregrinus — meaning to journey abroad — but arguably dates back much further, with religious scriptures pointing to Moses as the leader of the first ever pilgrimage, when he took the Israelites to the promised land of Canaan.
Today, pilgrimages are just one element of faith travel. Others include missionary and volunteer work, spiritual retreats, youth camps, faith cruises, and guided group or solo sightseeing vacations, incorporating key religious sites.
Such travel options are popular with travelers, too. According to research conducted by TravelStyles on behalf of the tour operator Globus, a quarter of US tourists are using a faith-based vacation as a motivator to travel internationally for the first time — with Israel topping the list of desirable destinations.
These findings certainly resonate with Reverend Dominic Barrington, an episcopal rector and freelance consultant who’s been leading tours for the faith-based operator Lightline Pilgrimages for around 15 years.
“Our biggest destination is the Holy Land of modern-day Israel and Palestine,” he says. “Naturally, travel to such places is affected by perceived security implications and the economic situation. But it’s still our most popular destination by some margin.”
Barrington argues faith-based travel tends to be a niche, albeit well-established, market. He also believes it’s a sector that tends to be dominated by full vacation tours or pilgrimages, rather than short day-trips. Ron Abrams, vice president of Abrams Travel, which caters to a Jewish clientele, and the Christian operator Foundations of Faith, agrees.
“In our experience, people of faith choose specific faith packages; it’s the reason why they travel,” he says. “They also tend to buy from travel companies with experience of a certain faith.”
There are a few interfaith operators, he asserts, but most customers will try to find a travel company experienced in a specific religion. “That said, there’s definitely a growing market for interfaith travel, especially as the number of dual-religion families is growing in the US,” he adds. “For us, it means we’re seeing a lot more demand for trips that include both Christian and Jewish sites.”
Sacred snapshot: A visit to Europe is a spiritual highlight for many US Christians, and one that caters to several denominations. Part of the appeal is it’s possible to combine religious with other cultural sightseeing. Rome as the seat of Catholicism, for example, is also scattered with vestiges of ancient Rome, such as the Coliseum. Other suggestions include Saxony-Anhalt in Germany — featuring churches associated with the birth of Lutheran Protestantism — and the British holy islands of Lindisfarne and Iona, both prominent Celtic destinations for Episcopalian pilgrims. There are also important Catholic pilgrimage sites at Lourdes in France, Santiago de Compostela in Spain and Knock in Ireland.
Standout site: Italy is awash with Catholic heritage, but nowhere more so than in the Vatican City, where it’s possible to attend the weekly Papal audience and visit St Peter’s Basilica.
Where else: Greece is a popular destination for Baptists tracing the footsteps of St Paul. Much of the apostle’s missionary work was based here, with key sites including Philippi, Corinth, and the stunning cliff-top monasteries at Meteora.
Selling tip: Many religious landmarks are located close to airports served by low-cost airlines, making multi travel easy and cost-effective.
Sacred snapshot: Although faith-based travelers are most interested in Israel, there are many other sacred Middle East destinations. For example, Islam’s holiest city, Mecca in Saudi Arabia; and Bethabara in modern-day Jordan, where Jesus is said to have been baptized.
Standout site: Jerusalem. The epicenter of Jewish religious heritage welcomes thousands daily, many of whom come to pray at the Western Wall and Tomb of King David. Jerusalem is also a principal site for Christians and Muslims, with areas such as the Mount of Olives sanctified in both religions’ scriptures.
Where else: Turkey is a major inter-faith destination, having played a vital role in the development of several religions. Ephesus has religious significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, as the location of the House of the Virgin Mary and place where St Paul delivered one of his most famous epistles.
Selling tip: Keep an eye on travel advice for signs of any political or religious unrest.
Sacred snapshot: This continent’s Catholic heritage dates back to the early days of the Spanish colonial era, when missionaries started building churches. Among the best-known are Our Lady of Good Success in Quito, Ecuador, and the Dark Virgin of the Lake in Copacabana, Bolivia.
Standout site: The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil. As the most important Marian shrine it ranks above Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Lourdes for visitor numbers. Millions come year-round, particularly on October 12, when Brazil holds a public holiday to commemorate the Virgin Mary in her guise as Our Lady of Aparecida.
Where else: Cochabamba, Bolivia. As well as a statue of Christ taller than the one in Rio, the Bolivian city of Cochabamba is home to The Chapel of Christ of the Tears of St Peter. This contains an effigy of Christ that has reputedly wept tears of blood every Good Friday since 1995.
Selling tip: The sheer size of South America makes it hard to build multiple sites across various countries into a single, faith-based trip. Focusing on just one destination, like Ecuador or Bolivia, is a safer option.
Sacred snapshot: With a population of 529 million, it’s no surprise North America is one of the world’s most spiritually diverse locations. And nowhere is this more the case than here in the US where there are an estimated 300 religions, over a third of which are New Age movements.
Major destinations include Salt Lake City (home of Mormonism), Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona, revered by many New Age faiths, and Crater Lake in Oregon — a significant spiritual site for the Klamath Tribes of Native Americans.
Standout site: Salt Lake Temple, Utah. This vast neo-gothic temple not only dominates the skyline of downtown Salt Lake City, but is also the holiest location for Mormons, having been personally selected by the Mormon prophet Brigham Young.
Where else: The Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. Like all Baha’i sanctuaries, this ornate temple has nine sides, a tall dome, and is surrounded by lush, serene gardens. As the world’s oldest Baha’i temple and the only one in the US, it’s also an important destination for Baha’i pilgrims.
Selling tip: There are around 335,000 religious congregations in the US, and a mind-boggling array of faith-based travel options, including retreats, volunteer vacations and pilgrimages. Specializing in one area will help you grow your client base.
Sacred snapshot: Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism all have their origins in Asia — with the Indian subcontinent in particular drawing vast numbers of spiritual travelers. The rich assortment of destinations in India, Nepal and Bhutan include the visually arresting Golden Temple of Amritsar — the holiest site in Sikhism — and the dramatic clifftop Buddhist ‘Tiger’s Nest’ Taktshang Monastery in Bhutan. Southeast Asia is also important, particularly for Buddhists, with top locations including Yangon in Burma and Pak Ou in Laos.
Standout site: Borobudur, Indonesia. More than 2,500 years old, this breathtaking temple — the largest Buddhist monument in the world — was rediscovered in 1814 after centuries hidden beneath ash and vegetation. Following extensive restoration work in the 1970s, the UNESCO-listed site is now the top destination for Buddhist pilgrims, who travel to see its 2,600 relief panels and 72 bell-shaped stupas, each containing a statue of Buddha. The monument is located in the Kedu Valley, in the southern part of Central Java, at the center of the island of Java, Indonesia.
Where else: Varanasi, India. Situated around 450 miles south of Delhi on the banks of the Ganges, the holy city of Varanasi is Hinduism’s oldest and most sacred destination — famous for its iconic river ghats (steps) and floating funeral pyres. Key worship sites include the Vishwanath, Bharat Mata and Tulsi Manas temples.
Selling tip: Many of Asia’s spiritual landmarks are very remote, so check transfer times and advise accordingly before drawing up your clients’ itinerary.
PUBLISHED IN THE SPRING 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork