This is the first in a series on the faith-based travel market.
Some say Moses was the first faith tour leader. He led the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land.
Worldwide religious, faith, or faith-based travel has been around for millennia, yet it’s growing and diversifying as never before. The good news for travel agents is that the niche represents hot business potential for those who take the steps to understand and serve it.
Tourism statistics on faith travel indicate that travel professionals who use creativity and expertise in responding to clients’ interests find unlimited business potential.
The UN World Tourism Organization estimates that 300 million to 330 million people a year participate in faith-based travel. The U.S. Travel Association reports that 25% of all travelers are interested in a spiritual vacation.
A diverse market
Faith travel today is not just pious pauses at holy sites (see sidebar). Its new diversity reflects the modern traveler’s range of interests and passions about such subjects as archaeological study in ancient lands, give-back endeavors and adrenalin-pumping activities like cycling or camel riding in the desert.
Some travelers who embrace this niche choose four- and five-star hotels from which to launch their treks and pilgrimages that may utilize private driver/guides. Others elect middling properties away from the city center and travel on motorcoaches.
Faith travel clients may tramp around biblical archaeology projects and museum repositories of artifacts from ancient civilizations. Others may elect “roots” tours that lead them not only into their faith heritage but also to their ancestors who practiced it.
Travelers who like to be active might elect a hike on the Jesus Trail in Israel or The Abraham Path that follows the journey Abraham made thousand of years ago through several Middle Eastern countries. Some get inside the culture of biblical patriarchs by doing overnights in desert Bedouin camps.
Some who have worked in the sector for many years say there are more reasons than revenue to go after it.
“Many agents find rewards way beyond the financial,” said Edita Krunic, founder and president of Select International Tours and Cruises, a company that specializes in faith travel. “If you are a believer, you will find great reward in working with people who believe the way you do.
“And you get to see how faith travel impacts people. Travel is a wonderful gift, and people who go on pilgrimages or study church history through travel usually transform their lives.”
Krunic is one industry veteran who advises agents there is the big need for education and experience as a path to success. Networking with others, having a concerted marketing strategy, and actually experiencing faith travel are some additional ways she advises agents to move forward in this realm.
It’s also a good idea to pay attention to trends.
One tour operator that’s on top of the market is Globus. The company sees growth and also a need for varying price points, said Mike Shields, Globus managing director for groups and emerging markets.
“People are starting to realize they need to actually be there to connect with their faith,” he said. “And we believe this is a market that’s never going to die. Even in a country like Israel where there is trouble from time to time, it always comes back. But right now, economic times are tough for some and we have responded.”
Through its Cosmos brand, Globus has installed new budget-friendly religious vacations.
“As air fares have gone up, many were asking us for lower price points,” Shields said. “So we’ve responded with an entry level product which is about $130 per day versus $230 per day for land packages. Both brands are in our brochure, and agents are thrilled, because they already have the lower priced product to market, without a need for customization.”
Crystal’s new shore options
Another travel provider that has responded with new products for the faith travel market is Crystal Cruises. Earlier this year, it introduced its new Christian Heritage Tours. Travelers have the choice of nine onshore opportunities, which include pilgrimage, mass, destination give-back projects, and tours of architecture at ancient sites of religious renown.
“This program expansion builds upon our incredibly popular Jewish heritage tours offered around the world,” said John Stoll, vice president of land and port operations. “Religious-related shore excursions are just one more way our guests can experience the unique history and culture of a destination and perhaps even connect with their own personal ancestry as well.”
While it’s true some travelers remain focused on spiritual pilgrimage experiences as pilgrims have been for centuries, there are many who want to do more than listen and learn. They seek destination engagement and experience, and they want to balance the spiritual side with leisure vacation components. This is some of what gives faith travel its 21st century look.
Next: Tips for travel agents on selling faith travel.