For the past 400 years, the Bavarian hamlet of Oberammergau has transformed itself into a stage for the "Passion of Christ," depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ, performed by local residents.
As Christians the world over recently observed the Passion of Christ on Good Friday, tour operators around the globe are hawking tickets to the 102 performances from May 16 to Oct. 4, 2020.
The play is performed five days per week in an open-air theater that seats about 4,700 people. It is anticipated that more than 750,000 will attend.
Even though it happens just once a decade, Amrei Gold, head of PR North America at the German National Tourist Office in New York, says, “Oberammergau is very significant for Germany – every 10 years. It tends to ‘disappear’ somewhat into obscurity during the time in between.”
However, with the development of social media, the presence in the general consciousness and the overall interest is much stronger today in comparison to 10 years ago.” Christians comprise about 30 percent of Germany’s population; worldwide Christianity accounts for 2.1 billion followers.
Securing tickets early
Competition for tickets is legendary. Tour operators invest their own money in inventory so they tend to place pressure on agents to persuade clients to place deposits as early as two years in advance and pay in full within a year of the event.
Yet some operators claim there is no great rush as tickets abound, says Edita Krunic, president of Select International Tours and Cruise, and a founding member of the Faith Travel Association and board director at the National Tour Association.
Krunic advises agents, “Despite what big companies are saying, it is not going to sell out in the next three to six months, so it is important to let agents know that while this is a big event, it will not be sold out. But, it is good to get clients to plan and budget for it. Yet, if they are not comfortable laying out thousands now, do not fret. I am certain agents will be able to buy a package a year from now.”
Having mentioned this, she also said it is important to take a survey of the inventory to see how to best match clients to the products on the market.
Faith-based and secular options
Tours featuring Oberammergau run the gamut from purely faith-based itineraries to secular vacations with a touch of the Passion Play as well as customized packages to suit clients’ tastes. Leisure-based operators are either nestling the Oberammergau within programs or adding pre- and post-programs to the play when it is the core of the product.
European Destination Management company Tumlare was appointed GSA for the Oberammergau Passion Play at last year’s German Travel Mart in Nuremberg. Joseph Green, regional director – Americas, said agents and tour operators can purchase tickets to the Oberammergau Passion Play 2020 through Tumlare when purchasing under 1,000 tickets. Beyond that figure, travel agents and operators may book directly with the organizers.
Faith-based companies include prime movers of travelers such as Nawas International Travel, Inc., which counts nearly 20 programs featuring the Passion Play. Based on the company’s experience, the majority of travelers will focus on the Alpine Europe regions of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, which are all in the vicinity of Oberammergau.
Says Philip C. Khoury, executive director of sales, "Nawas has been a faith-based group tour operator since our founding in 1949 and we have a very long history with the village of Oberammergau and the Passion Play dating back to the 1960s."
Krunic’s company offers Catholic pilgrimage itineraries with daily private Mass and a visit to Catholic shrines, while their Protestant tours focus on religious heritage. Likewise, Milanka Lachman, president and founder of 206 Tours, says her programs, while solidly Christian-based, are being paired with many options including Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and Israel.
Minnesota-based Ed-Ventures’ President Paul Larsen, addressed the issue of matching clients with the right product. “For some, the play itself is the climax to a meaningful itinerary that you customize for them, and for others the emphasis is more on a fun trip and includes Oktoberfest, for example.
Differences among American tour companies
Among the major leisure-based American players are The Travel Corporation companies Trafalgar Tours, Uniworld and Insight Vacations, as well as Globus, Tauck and Collette.
Other leisure-based companies and river cruise operators, such as CroisiEurope and Gate 1 Travel, have fattened their Passion Play programs with a suite of options or have placed the Passion Play into existing itineraries. Distinguishing one program from another is key to matching clients with the most appropriate product for them.
Collette claims “premiere access” to tickets for the once-in-a-decade Oberammergau Passion Play in 2020. Back in 2010, Collette handled more than 10,000 travelers to the Passion Play. That year, Nawas International Travel handled over 16,000 people coming to the play, the largest tour operator to the play.
Gate 1 Travel will operate land tours and river cruises to experience the Passion Play 2020 and explore Oberammergau and the surrounding areas.
The Globus family of brands lists 14 different itineraries to Oberammergau in 2020 including 10 secular and four religious vacations, says Vanessa Parrish, channel marketing manager for the Globus family of brands.
“The Best of Germany with Oberammergau would be the best journey for those who want to really get immersed in German culture, as it also takes guests to the Black Forest, the castles of the Rhine, and vibrant towns such as Rothenberg, Heidelberg, Dresden, Berlin, and Nuremberg,” notes Amber Boyle, groups sales manager at Insight Vacations.
“Our itineraries include the best available seating for the Passion Play, we stay in the best available hotel properties, and we feature the Passion Play as just one component within a choice of larger, enriching Tauck itineraries,” says Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president for Tauck Land Journeys.
“We’ll include the Passion Play as an integral part of two of our European land tours, and it will be an optional add-on (subject to availability and not bookable separately) on two European river cruises,” adds Palmer.
Back in June, Trafalgar’s CEO Gavin Tollman reported that “The demand for Oberammergau has been quite incredible. With three years still to go, Trafalgar is already at 50 percent definite departures for Oberammergau. “
River cruise company CroisiEurope is offering a seven-night itinerary that will take in a performance of the 2020 Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany.
There is also a lot to see in Bavaria. Says Jens Huwald, CEO of Bavaria Tourism, “We are traditionally different.” The region boasts seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 111,000 acres of national park and more than 15,000 acres of vineyards. All told, Huwald reports that the regions' legendary palaces and castles attract more than five million visitors a year.
As much as Christian beliefs are at the heart of the Passion Play, GNTO’s Gold says a surge of interest for Germany, in general, seems to coincide with the decennial event.