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 back 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, was—and is—a religious experience in and of itself.
But today, travel 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. It has become such a popular trend that there is now a World Religious Travel Association, which in late October will host the first World Religious Travel Expo October 29–November 1 at the Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando, FL.
“The World Religious Travel Expo is the first-ever trade show and convention that’s ever taken place for the faith tourism industry on [a] global level,” says Kevin J. Wright, president of the association. “It’s shaping up to be a ‘who’s who’ in faith tourism. A lot of the major tour operators, travel destinations, cruise lines and others that are either entering the faith-based tourism market or are looking to expand their presence will be there.”
Wright believes that the Expo will be a “defining moment in faith tourism,” and will serve as a bridge between the old era and new era of the business. “When we think of religious tourism [or] faith tourism, we think of it as primarily a pilgrimage market,” he explains. At their simplest, Wright says, pilgrimages have traditionally been defined as “a journey to a holy site with a spiritual intention in mind. That’s where you get the Holy Land. That’s where you get traveling in Europe with the shrines to the saints there, or a holy person—even a living person.”
But in the past few years, faith tourism has entered a new era, Wright believes, one that “is not driven by pilgrimages, but by missionary travel, faith-based cruising, faith-based attractions, leisure vacations, adventure trips, conferences and so on.” These trips appeal to all ages and all demographics. “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,” Wright says. Because there is such a variety of travelers, fewer are as limited by budget as pilgrims traditionally were.
Contemporary faith tourists “seek out and purchase first-class products and services,” he says.
Wright believes that there are now three categories of faith tourism—traditional pilgrimage; travel with a missionary or humanitarian intent (such as volunteer vacations or to assist local populations); and travel with a fellowship intent.
This third category is the fastest growing, he notes. “Those are your faith-based cruises. Those are your adventure trips—a ski trip up in the mountains, or even a trip to the Grand Canyon for several days, a hiking trip or a multi-adventure trip…Those are conferences and retreats.” For an example of this category, he cites World Youth Day, which was developed by Pope John Paul II in 1986. Every two to three years, young Catholics from around the world gather in a major city for one week, culminating in a visit from the Pope himself. In 1995, 4 million youth gathered in Manila. This year, 400,000 people traveled to Sydney. “People are traveling there to experience fellowship with [their peers], with the Pope,” Wright says.
As another example, Wright mentions the developing tourism market to Jordan. “Jordan fully realizes that today’s faith-based tourism market is more versatile than pilgrimages,” he says. Jordan features prominently throughout the Bible, and much of its tourism throughout history has been based on famous locations that biblical figures may have visited themselves.
Take a closer look at religious travel opportunities in Jordan in the video below:
He adds, “But even Jordan, recognizing that faith tourism is more dynamic, more versatile, [is] doing a great job encouraging tour operators that are selling packages to integrate not only the pilgrimage sites, but the leisure activities that you can also find there.” Tourists in Jordan can go snorkeling in the Red Sea, enjoy a Jeep tour through the Wadi Rum or explore the desert. “They know today’s market in faith tourism,” Wright says of Jordan’s tourism board. “When [travelers] go to Jordan, Israel, Europe, Asia, wherever the destination, they do want faith to be the focus, but they also want the trip to be balanced by traditional sightseeing and leisure activities.”
And that is where the Expo comes in. “We’re entering this new era, and there have never really been brand leaders, per se, in faith tourism,” Wright says. “One thing that this Expo will do is convey that message to the tourist boards and the tour operators, that the faith tourism market is much more dynamic today than what many think it is. It’s much more versatile. And although some destinations like Jordan understand this new marketplace, many are not yet aware.”
Wright imagines that travel operators and representatives of destinations might come to the Expo with the goal of promoting their pilgrimage sites. Once the Expo gets underway, however, they’ll find that they can promote the leisure aspects of destinations. “They may come with one intention,” he says, “but they’re going to learn that they have much greater opportunities.”