Religious travel goes back to at least ancient Egypt, when pilgrims would walk for days to visit shrines and temples, needing food and lodging along the way.
The travel industry has grown since then, of course, but religious travel has largely remained static, focusing on pilgrimages and mission work. Until now, that is. In the past several years, a new kind of religious travel has developed, one that caters not only to pilgrims, but to many different kinds of travelers. To help agents and suppliers keep up with the trends, the World Religious Travel Association (WRTA) is currently hosting the World Religious Travel Expo (WRTE) at the Gaylord Palms Hotel in Orlando, FL.
The meetings began promptly at 7 a.m. Thursday morning, before the sun had even risen (There must be some religious metaphor in that, but I'm too tired to think of it now. Did I mention that first meeting was at 7?). Kevin Wright, president of the WRTA, greeted the 500+ attendees with an observation from Thomas Cook, the 19th-century minister-turned-travel agent, that religious travel is the root of the travel industry.
Steve Born of Globus offered some interesting numbers about religious travel as it relates to the industry in general:
- 1/3 of all travelers are likely to take a religious trip.
- 40 percent of these people are between the ages of 35 and 54; 63 percent are college graduates, and 37 percent have an income of over $75,000.
- 42.3 percent want a 50/50 mix of religious and secular activities. "It's a vacation with a purpose," Born noted, "but it's still a vacation."
- 80 percent of religious travelers plan to travel again.
- And perhaps most importantly, and distressingly, only 35 percent of religious travelers book their vacation through a travel agent.
Linville Johnson, Malia Asfour and Jim Buddendorf on the panel at WRTE
At a panel of the WRTA's charter members moderated by Honnie Korngold, president of Christian Travel Finder, Jim Buddendorf, president and CEO of MTS Travel, said that volunteer vacations ("Voluntourism") are popular with churches. Adam Leavitt of Trafalgar Tours pointed out that agents can get a high commission— including air— on religious tours. Malia Asfour of Jordan's tourism board suggested that agents consider themselves ambassadors to the destinations they sell, and be certain to visit and become thoroughly acquainted. When people leave Jordan, she added, they remember the hospitality they enjoyed there--a legacy of the Bedouin people. Cherie Weinstein of Carnival Cruise Line pointed out that cruises— especially charters— can be customized to suit a group's taste, and Linville Johnson of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism suggested that religious travelers enjoy his islands' natural beauty while they cruise the Caribbean. "The Bahamas isn't where Jesus was born," he admitted with a grin, "but it's where God lives." Tasoula Manaridis of the Cyprus Tourism Organization pointed out the numerous Christian shrines on her island, and added that Cyprus' proximity to Israel, Egypt and Jordan make it easy to add on to a multi-destination package.
Check back tomorrow to learn more about faith cruising, and how to sell religious travel successfully!