Emerging Niche: Religious Travel

For as long as people have believed in something, they have traveled to honor it. Pilgrimages are almost inherent to faith itself, whether it’s Jews making their aliyah to Israel, Muslims making their hajj to Mecca or Catholics visiting regional shrines or the Vatican. The effort of a voyage sets a specific goal for a traveler, and the payoff of the destination becomes a religious experience in and of itself. Thomas Cook, the great 19th-century travel agent, understood this: He started out as a minister, and his earliest tours were group excursions from his church.

St. Peter's Square Vatican

St. Peter's Square in the Vatican will always be a huge draw for Catholic pilgrims

But today, traveling for faith is growing into a new and unique niche. Although there are still penitents and pilgrims, many people going on faith-based journeys are looking to combine a vacation with their religious travel. “Faith tourism is now enjoyed by, taken by, purchased by all age groups—from youth to baby boomers to retired folks—all on equal levels,” says Kevin Wright, president of the World Religious Travel Association, which organized the first annual World Religious Travel Expo in October. This “new era” of faith tourism, he says, “is not driven by pilgrimages, but by missionary travel, faith-based cruising, faith-based attractions, leisure vacations, adventure trips, conferences and so on.”

Kevin Wright

Kevin Wright, president of the World Religious Travel Association and organizer of the World Religious Travel Expo

While classic destinations like Israel and Italy will always be popular, some clients might want to see Protestant reformer John Calvin’s home while on a tour of Switzerland, or visit Fátima while in Portugal. You might also earn a good commission chartering a cruise for a church group. And while the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Bahamas might not seem like religious destinations, the abundance of churches—and beaches—on the islands can make them a very appealing destination for faithful travelers.

A Growing Niche

There is enough interest in the faith market that several tour operators have created separate programs or divisions that exclusively handle religious travel. Globus created its religious travel division in 2004, and now offers many tours to Israel and Italy. According to studies Globus has conducted, one-third of outbound travelers are likely to take a religious tour within the next five years. Of these travelers, more than 73 percent want an escorted tour around their destination, and more than 42 percent want an equal mix of religious and secular activities on their journey. “It’s a vacation with a purpose,” says Globus Vice President of Marketing Steve Born, “but it’s still a vacation.”

Not surprisingly, Israel and Italy topped the faith-based destination list for Globus at 54 and 41 percent, respectively, but England and Ireland came in at 28 and 27 percent, respectively, indicating a strong interest in non-traditional religious destinations. As in all travel, there is a clear motive for adjusting the journey to suit the clients’ needs: 80 percent of those surveyed said that they planned to repeat their tours.

Bryan Earley, Globus’ national group sales manager, advises agents to “do research on local churches in their target areas and find out which of those do pilgrimages or have travel ministry programs.” He also recommends searching online for prospective groups—“Churches want to be found!”—and figuring out what each one wants. Some churches want to organize a trip as a fund-raiser. Some pastors expect to travel for free. “Learn to listen more than you talk,” he says. “A religious trip is more than a simple vacation.”

Mayflower Tours recently launched a new faith travel division called Faithful Holidays. “We saw a need in the market for a faith-based journey that allows like-minded people the opportunity to travel as a group and share in faith, fun and fellowship,” says Torre Ossmo, vice president and general manager of Faithful Holidays. “Our concept is to provide a tour with a focus on a faith-based itinerary and include other attractions featuring the historical and cultural side of a destination.”

To make itself distinct from the parent company, Faithful Holidays created its own brand, but maintains the benefit of Mayflower’s reputation and experience. Ossmo advises agents to find clientele for religious travel through “churches, religious organizations, senior groups within a congregation and finding a pastor who is keen to lead a group to one of the popular faith-based destinations.”

stacy shaw bryan earley

Stacy Shaw of Royal Caribbean and Bryan Earley of Globus shared their expertise as panelists at the World Religious Travel Expo

Faith Cruising

With the increased popularity of niche cruising, agents can tailor-design a trip for a church getaway or other religious group on boats and ships of different sizes. There is clearly a market: Globus’ study revealed that more than 18 percent of faith travelers would prefer to take a cruise.

“Religious travel combines faith and fun,” believes Cherie Weinstein, vice president of Carnival Cruise Lines. The biggest trend in faith-based cruising, she adds, is cruises that incorporate Christian music and entertainment. Darrell Burrow, director of sales for Premier Christian Cruises, agrees. “Believers are looking for more than a vacation,” he says.

“Cruising is a natural fit for this community,” says Stacy Shaw, director, charter sales for Royal Caribbean, noting that the value, convenience, versatility and variety of a cruise can appeal to any kind of group. As with any business, she adds, a good cruise line should look to appeal to a wide variety of people, and the base for any sale is a solid and marketable idea. Whether a full charter or a group of 100, cruise lines can adapt complete trips or specific evenings to suit any taste, whether closing down the onboard bars and casinos or booking entertainers who will appeal to the passengers.

Booking a cruise for a religious group is just as challenging as booking any other kind of cruise, however. “Approach the right people for the right trip,” advises Andy Christo, vice president of Monarch Classic Cruises. Weinstein agrees, and emphasizes that as with any charter, an agent should sell out the ship and have a wait list. “Love the people you are dealing with,” Burrow says, “and reach out to them.”

The Caribbean, Bermuda and the Bahamas

While the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Bahamas might seem a stretch as religious destinations, they can be just as appealing as a trip to the Holy Land. Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, the Bahamas’ minister of tourism, describes the 700 islands of the Bahamas as not only a place for recreation, but for recreating oneself in a spiritual sense.

The first European settlement in the Bahamas was on the island that came to be called Eleuthera Island. It was founded in 1647 by Puritans on the run from Bermuda, and when they arrived, they named their new home in honor of the religious freedom they hoped to enjoy there: “Eleuthera” is derived from the Greek word for freedom. “That is very much embedded in our history, very much embedded in our Constitution, and very much embedded in our people,” Vanderpool-Wallace says. In fact, the Bahamas’ adherence to Christian principles is written into the preamble of the country’s Constitution.

“This isn’t something that we just decided to do as a development for tourism,” Vanderpool-Wallace insists, describing faith as “embedded” in the Bahamian culture. “There are four things that are more important than the commercial development of tourism,” he says. “One is our culture, another is our policies, the third one is our environment and the fourth one is our faith. We’re not going to compromise any of those simply for the commercial development of tourism. So the faith-based part of what we do is very much a part of our culture, and is not something we’re prepared to compromise on, because it is so ingrained in us.”

Linville Johnson, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism’s director of the religious market, adds that “the Bahamas isn’t where Jesus was born, but it’s where God lives.”

Emilygail Dill, acting director of sales and marketing for Bermuda’s Department of Tourism, encourages agents to promote Bermuda’s natural aesthetic to travelers wishing to reconnect with their faith. Describing the islands as “Heaven on Earth,” she also praises the communities that accept people of all religions and cultures. As a strategic player in the middle passage, Bermuda now hosts the annual African Diaspora Heritage Trail Project, which helps descendants of slaves research their history. May is Heritage Month, and is the ideal time for church groups to come to the islands and learn more about their ancestors. “Faith is the core of who they are,” Dill says of Bermuda’s many religious visitors, “but at the end of the day, they want to enjoy what life has to offer.”

jersualem Dome of Rock

The Dome of Rock in Jerusalem, a city significant to Jewish, Christian and Muslim history

Building Bridges to the Holy Land

While many tourists might be anxious about visiting Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, the tourism ministers of each of these countries emphasize not only the safety of travel in the Middle East and Mediterranean, but the unique experiences the locations can offer.

Middle East tourism is growing faster than global tourism, thanks to increased demand from pilgrims. Arie Sommer, the Israel Ministry of Tourism’s commissioner for North and South America, believes that the image of the Middle East has changed in recent years. “People feel more comfortable coming to the region,” he says, adding that visitors do not limit themselves to one city when they arrive. “The task is to guarantee access to holy places.” In 2007, 2.7 million tourists came to Israel, he says, and Christian inbound travel has doubled in the past 10 years. Hotels are investing in Jerusalem, which will soon see a Waldorf=Astoria join the Four Seasons that opened recently in the ancient city.

ElSayed M. Khalifa, consul-director USA and Latin America of the Egyptian Tourist Authority, believes that Egypt is as safe as London or New York, and notes that the country has landmarks of three major religions together. “Every visit to Egypt is faith-based,” he says, pointing out the original religious significance of the pyramids. The nation saw 11 million arrivals in 2007, and is looking to add 1 million to that total each year.

Somewhat less obvious as Holy Land destinations, Greece and Cyprus offer historic religious sites and relaxing beaches that can be combined with a trip to Egypt, Israel or Jordan. According to the Bible, St. Paul visited both locations, and several sites bear his name. When visiting Greece, religious tourists can see Corinth, with the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Paul, and Philippi, with the ruins of the Basilica of Paul. The Pillar of St. Paul is on Cyprus. Since 2006, Cyprus has focused exclusively on religious travel, and its tourism board was a charter member of WRTA. Greece, meanwhile, is offering fam trips to encourage agents to learn more about all it has to offer.

elsayed m khalifa, khouloud daibes abu dayyeh, akel biltaji

ElSayed M. Khalifa, consul-director of the Egyptian Tourism Authority; Dr. Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh, minister of tourism for the Palestinian National Authority; and the Honorable Akel E. Biltaji, Jordan's ambassador-at-large for tourism

Malia Asfour, director of Jordan Tourism Board of North America, believes that agents should serve as ambassadors to Jordan and come see the country for themselves to better pitch it to clients. Jordan offers more than 200 religious sites for exploration, including the legendary “lost city” of Petra (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and tombs of biblical personages. Beyond that, the cultural sense of hospitality among the local Bedouin people (known as diyafa) is as legendary as the historical sites, and, Asfour says, is what visitors return home remembering more than anything else. The Honorable Akel E. Biltaji, Jordan’s ambassador-at-large for tourism, mentions the Abraham Path Initiative, a series of trails that retraces the journey supposedly made by the biblical patriarch, as a destination for religious travelers. By focusing on a figure shared as a patriarch of Christianity, Judaism and Islam alike, travelers—and agents—can promote acceptance over mere co-existence.

“It is not possible to promote Israel and Palestine without cooperation,” says Dr. Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh, minister of tourism for Palestine, adding that the state is still facing challenges, particularly accessibility from Israel. Things are improving for the embattled region, however: Last year, hotels saw occupancy rates of 35 to 40 percent. This year, the rate was up to 85 percent, and 10 hotels are under construction. There are also currently 2,000 hotel rooms in the ancient city of Bethlehem alone, and they hope to have 3,000 soon. It’s a reasonable goal: Tourism has become the number-two investment in Palestine after housing.

Most importantly, Daibes says, visiting a place builds understanding, which builds bridges. “Faith tourism can be a tool for peace,” she believes.

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