Travel Agents Put Faith in Religious Tourism

by Richard D’Ambrosio

When Leora Halpern Lanz was planning her son’s bar mitzvah, she knew it had to be something special.

“My family’s history is in Tel Aviv,” said Lanz, who has worked in the travel and tourism industry for more than 25 years. So she contacted an American Rabbi in Jerusalem, and planned something extraordinary for her family of five.

Halpern Lanz, who today is a public relations and marketing consultant, and lecturer at Boston University, booked a two-week family vacation that included eight days in Israel and six days in Rome.

“Jerusalem is the city of life. We held the Bar Mitzvah in a garden behind the King David hotel. We were under pomegranate trees, looking at the old city. I can’t imagine having done it any other way. We all were so incredibly moved.”

Of the 3.5 million tourists that visited Israel in 2015, 600,000 Americans came, said Chad Martin, director, Northeast Region, Israel Ministry of Tourism. “People come back really transformed because it is a place that touches them in so many different ways,” he said.

The Halpern Lanz family toured Jerusalem, traveled north to the Syrian border and spent the night at a kibbutz resort in Kfar Blum. “Kfar Blum was lovely. A lot of Israelis go there. The fresh foods and produce are delicious. You can go kayaking,” Halpern Lanz said.

Eitan Sasson, North America marketing and sales director for the Israeli Dan Hotels chain said a wide array of faiths tour Israel, from families like the Halpern Lanz’s, “to Ethiopian Christians who come for their Easter celebration, members of the Bahai faith who come to Israel for pilgrimage (their spiritual center is in the city of Haifa) and all U.S. Christian denominations who come to connect with the origins of their faith and walk in Jesus’ footsteps.”

In order to promote lengthy religious tours, Dan Hotels has its Gold Dan 7 program, which offers about a 14% discount for individual travelers staying seven nights or more at any combination of the chain’s hotels.

Sasson said his chain is seeing a variety of religious tourists, including individual groups like the Halpern Lanz family on a private bar mitzvah tour, to families and neighbors coming together, to families specifically seeking out group tours with families they have never met.

Religious tourism fans out across the globe
While Israel is a favorite for North American pilgrims and faith-based programs, agents are finding interest in many other cities and countries.

For example, the Halpern Lanz family spent their last few days in Tel Aviv to be with family and friends and then headed to Rome. “The Vatican was on our must see list too because I want my kids exposed to religions beyond ours,” Halpern Lanz said. They had visited Rome four years ago, she said, but the Sistine chapel was under renovation. “We did the full tour this time. It was important to us to see it. We were going on this trip for spiritual reasons, and even though Catholicism isn’t our religion, that to me was critical.”

Julia Matheson, Matheson Travel, Hickory, NC, will be taking her first faith-based tour group this fall for her mom’s church to France. “They have a young active pastor who took the congregation to the Holy Land last year. Most things on the ground went fine, but leading a tour is not her thing,” Matheson said.

So Matheson’s mother suggested that the church hand off the planning to her daughter. Matheson is now designing a couple of different itineraries to visit France for about 30 congregants.

She is leveraging her knowledge of the country, where she lived and traveled extensively. “We'll probably visit the ancient monastery at Mont St. Michel, a former Benedictine monastery in Cluny, Saône-et-Loire, and the labyrinth at Chartres. France has so many great cathedrals, places that people have prayed at. We’ll attend a mass at Notre Dame, and do some private chanting and singing,” Matheson said.

In Germany, this year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Protestantism. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church on October 31, 1517, challenging the Catholic Church and launching what ultimately became the Protestant Reformation.

Germany is promoting the Luther family home, which houses a museum and personal items, such as Luther’s monk habit and bible. Near Eisenach is the 11th century Wartburg Castle where Luther hid from his pursuers and where he translated the New Testament into German. And in Erfurt, the Old Synagogue is a great representation of the region’s medieval Jewish community.

North American destinations are also beginning to focus on religious tourism. In late 2016, Tourisme Montréal and the Jerusalem Conventions & Visitors Bureau signed a memorandum of understanding with “faith tourism” the top priority.

“This segment is key for Tourisme Montréal and is growing substantially worldwide,” the organization said in a press release accompanying the announcement. “Montréal has been experiencing a significant increase in religious tourism, particularly since the canonization of Brother André in 2010.”

"Montréal wants to stand out as one of North America's top religious tourism destinations," said Yves Lalumière, President and CEO of Tourisme Montréal.

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