Message to travel sellers: the $16-billion faith-based travel market is no longer just about church groups visiting the Holy Land. And it needs you.
Because agents have strong relationships with credible suppliers, as well as with affinity and family groups – two primary sources for faith-based travel – they are ideally suited to expand the market even further, say industry executives.
Focus at NTA Forum
Reaching out to travel agents was one of the challenges identified during an NTA Faith Tourism Leaders Forum at the NTA Annual Convention last December.
Developing the faith-based travel market is high on the agenda of the NTA, which last year launched a faith-based travel initiative. Forty percent of NTA’s 700 members are involved in faith-based travel at some level, according to president Lisa Simon.
Kevin Wright, NTA’s director of faith-based tourism and growth markets, is charged with spearheading programs for developing the faith-based market via educational seminars, networking and participation in industry trade shows.
Wright is considered a leading authority on faith-based tourism. He founded the World Religious Travel Association, launched Globus’ Religious Travel Division and has authored several books in the area.
Religious tourism touches many sectors of the U.S. travel industry, and many sectors of the U.S. population, Simon said.
In the U.S. alone, there are some 335,000 religious congregations. Eighty percent of Americans identify with a particular faith, according to NTA, which cited findings from the American Religious Identification Survey.
Why agents are desirable
Suppliers in the faith-based travel market want to encourage more travel agent involvement because of their connections with both suppliers and consumers.
Agents’ relationships with credible suppliers can ensure that faith-based travelers are well-served by receptive operators, especially overseas.
This is important because ground providers do not always deliver all the inclusions that faith-based groups expect to receive. This problem crops up most frequently when groups deal directly with ground suppliers, according to participants at the NTA faith-based leadership forum last year.
Travel agents also can help suppliers reach out to faith-based travel groups and educate them about what tour programs include and the travel experiences they provide.
Diverse travel experiences
The growing diversity of the religious travel market was among trends identified by travel professionals during the NTA forum. The market now extends beyond pilgrimages to religious sites and Holy Land tours and includes travel that inspires.
Today’s faith-based traveler wants diverse travel experiences and different domestic and international destinations, including cruises, voluntourism, conferences and adventure tours.
Faith-based clients are also looking for more personal and experiential travels. While these travelers want the focus of their trips to be on faith, they also want leisure elements to balance their trips and conferences, according to participants at the NTA forum.
Trends include family travel
Other trends in faith-based travel include:
• more families and intergenerational groups embarking on faith-based trips together
• more vacations that involve volunteering
• more people of faith traveling to experience fellowship
• trips are shorter, both domestic and international, in response to the challenging economy.
• faith-based travelers, like other travelers, are using the Internet and social media to learn about faith-based travel opportunities.