Faith-Based Travel 101

By RaeAnn Slaybaugh

Despite the recent recession, religious travel remains a priority among church groups.

According to the Washington Post, pilgrimages, missionary trips and fellowship excursions taken by North American religious tourists comprise an estimated $10 billion of the overall travel industry. World Tourism Organization estimates that as many as 330 million pilgrims visit the world’s key religious sites every year. And, Travel Intermediaries Association reports that 25 percent of travelers say they’re interested in taking a “spiritual vacation.”

So, the will to take a faith-based trip is intact. What’s not so clear is the way.

To help pastors navigate the decision-making and planning process, Church Executive spoke with Kevin J. Wright, director of growth markets for

National Tour Association (NTA) in Lexington, KY. Wright is a well-known authority in the tourism industry — an entrepreneur, published author, speaker, consultant and blogger.

Church Executive: What does the market for faith-based travel look like today?

Kevin Wright: The answer to this question is “diverse.”

Today, it’s quite common to see a church community offering trips ranging from conferences, to getaway ski trips, to missionary work, to overseas pilgrimages, to faith-based cruises. The Great Recession has led to this increase of diverse travel choices and preferences as people of faith seek out experiences that are most conducive to their new financial situations and reorganized priorities.

Additionally, the Great Recession has led to some travelers shortening the duration/length of their trips to save costs.

CE: Are there certain destinations that have gained popularity in the past several years?

Wright: The countries of Israel and Jordan have remained among the most popular international destinations for faith-based travelers. In fact, the

Israel Ministry of Tourism has experienced record numbers of visitors in the past three years.

The next most popular faith-based trip and itinerary to emerge in recent years is the trend of travelers choosing to retrace the footsteps of Apostle Paul through Greece and Turkey.

Italy is experiencing a resurgence among Catholic visitors, due in part to the recent papal election.

Germany also continues to grow in popularity, especially in relation to travelers visiting the sites of the Reformation and Martin Luther.
In the United States, people of faith continue to visit Christian attractions in ever greater numbers, such as the biblically based Sight & Sound Theatres in Lancaster, PA and Branson, MO.

CE: What are pastors’ most common motivations for — and expectations of — a faith-based group trip?

Wright: The desire to experience one’s faith “in person” is the No. 1 driving motive. Only through travel can someone experience his or her faith from every dimension of the human being: socially, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and physically. As one pastor who has visited the Holy Land likes to say, “It’s one thing to read about the Sea of Galilee in the Bible; it’s another thing to actually sail across it, as Jesus did.”

Other commonly cited motivations include a desire to learn more about one’s religious heritage, to stand in the presence of a holy site or event, to provide missionary and humanitarian assistance, or simply to experience one’s faith in a more intimate and focused way.

CE: Generally speaking, when should pastors and church groups start fundraising?

Wright: Fundraising should begin at least one year in advance of the trip, if not sooner. However, the first step is for any pastor or group leader is to choose a travel company, an itinerary and a trip price. Once these steps are completed, then fundraising can begin.

Most tour operators and travel agents require a per-person deposit at time of booking to secure space. Full payment is often due 30 to 60 days prior to departure. For this reason, even if fundraising begins a full 12 months before the trip begins, the monies need to be earned in the first 10 months to ensure full on-time payment to the travel provider. This is why many church groups will begin fundraising efforts even 18 to 24 months prior to the first day of travel. You can almost never begin fundraising too soon.

CE: How can pastors ensure they’re getting the best possible value when choosing a group trip?

Wright: As group tours are complex undertakings, it’s imperative that pastors and group leaders first choose quality travel organizations and professionals who specialize in such work.

Second, it’s recommended that pastors and group leaders contact a minimum of three travel companies when researching and selecting tour operators or travel agents. As each company has its own unique specialties and pricing structures, this act of “shopping around” will ensure your chances of selecting the right professional for your travel wants, needs and preferences.

A religious travel group tours Israel. Photo courtesy of NTA, Inc.
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