With close to 350 million people—a World Tourism Organization estimate—traveling each year for religious and pilgrimage reasons, faith tourism has become a significant global industry that extends from cruises to volunteer vacations. Fueling extra religious interest in Europe this year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, for it was in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, setting off the Protestant Reformation. In Portugal, another major faith-based European celebration marks the 100th anniversary of the Apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, whose shrine, along with the Vatican, are Europe’s two most-visited pilgrimage sites. And coming up in 2020 is the spectacular Oberammergau Passion Play, which re-enacts the crucifixion of Christ and is performed once every decade in the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau.
Such major religious events give a boost to the ever-expanding market of religious or faith-based travel, according to Kari Hansen, travel consultant at Travel Leaders Market Square. “When putting travel programs together for churches, it helps to be a member,” says Hansen, “and your business grows by word of mouth from church to church. Ministers, priests and rabbis, of course, play a major roll in organizing and marketing travel for their congregations, and often one’s leisure clients are helpful in providing new introductions in this religious travel market.”
Hansen points out that faith-based travel is basically a group-tour market, and her groups average 20 to 25 persons. She unequivocally recommends working with tour operators who specialize in the market, guaranteeing knowledgeable guides and operations with good contacts. “They also provide the best-bang-for-the-buck value, important in this price-conscious market,” adds Hansen, “and which tour operator I use depends on the itinerary the client wants. For groups, I go to Globus, CIE Tours and Trafalgar, and for independent religious travelers, whose price point is higher, I work with Tauck.”
“Journeys you can believe in,” describes the faith-based program of Globus, whose tour offerings in Europe are escorted, mostly all-inclusive and date-specific to Italy, Germany, France & Spain, Greece & Turkey, Great Britain and Ireland. Globus family member Cosmos focuses on the destinations that are central to the Catholic faith such as Italy, Portugal, Spain and Poland.
According to Joanna Dyer, Globus’ director of customer sales and specialty markets, “this year’s tours that focused on the life of Luther and visiting key Reformation sites basically sold out; looking ahead, we already have in place our programs for 2020, highlighting the Oberammergau Passion Play in nine secular itineraries and four religious tours, one of the latter to be a Cosmos product.” Dyer points out that the faith-based market, which continues to expand substantially every year, is a strong repeat market. “Church groups generally like to travel together every other year or for specific anniversaries, so most certainly for Germany, it’s ideal that Oberammergau follows the Reformation anniversary.” However, she notes that while Catholic groups are more shrine-oriented, Protestant travelers go everywhere, liberally mixing sacred and mainstream sightseeing.
Bottom line, according to Dyer: “The religious market is a strong repeat market and a resilient one, less affected by negative news and safety fears.”
Among other tour operators with interesting, strong programs in the faith-based market, consider:
• Collette’s Faith Tours, which connect travelers to unforgettable and inspiring sites in Europe. This year, Collette welcomes travelers on an 11-day On the Trail of Martin Luther tour; a 10-day St. Patrick’s Ireland tour; and an 11-day Shrines of Italy tour. On the company website, find “10 reasons why your church needs to start a group travel program,” and then be sure to ask for the Collette “Religious Travel Planning Guide” to research and organize faith-based adventures.
• Homeric Tours’ Christian Faith Tours program offers an extensive roster of itineraries designed to guide planners through a range of Christian touring possibilities for group travel. There are Catholic tours focused on Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal; the Catholic heritage in Central Europe—Austria-the Czech Republic-Hungary-Poland; Christian Orthodox tours following in the footsteps of St. Paul through Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Malta, Italy, Armenia and Georgia; and Protestant tours, as well as Methodist or Anglican heritage tours in England.
• Trafalgar, experts in pilgrimage itineraries, creates tours that include significant religious sites and places of pilgrimage in Europe and the Eastern Med. The most popular destinations are Portugal, Spain and France, where inspirational highlights include Fatima, Santiago de Compostela, and Lourdes. Exploring the sites of religious significance takes travelers to the Vatican City, Assisi, Padua, Florence, Venice and San Giovanni Rotondo; visiting Medjugorje is the spiritual highlight of a Bosnia & Herzegovina tour; and itineraries in Greece & Turkey travel to many biblical sites including Corinth, Thessalonika, Patmos, Istanbul and Ephesus.