Having received a record-setting 4.5 million visitors in 2019, the Holy Land is arguably the premier bucket list pilgrimage destination for people of many faiths. Such a once-in-a-lifetime trip requires planning, resources, and, in the case of those who wish to visit as part of a group, the selection of a tour operator who is well-versed in the area and the many highlights it has to offer.
Having been in business for 23 years, Faith Travel Association member Gemm Travel certainly has that expertise. A family-owned company, Gemm Travel is a one-stop shop for groups traveling to the area. Not only does the company maintain its own modern bus fleet and ticketing office, it owns and operates a new four-star hotel in Jerusalem, Tantur Hills Hotel. Additionally, Gemm Travel has its own airline agent, which serves as the travel service provider for the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem.
These are some of the reasons why Henrique Abreu, director of global sales and marketing for Gemm Travel, says his company offers a high level of customer service. “We have a long-standing tradition in serving pilgrims,” says Abreu, “having three pillars in our operation: experience, knowledge, and tradition. We offer competitive and affordable programs, as well as crafted travel experiences for our clients, who come from more than 20 countries.”
Many of those specialized experiences are a result of Gemm’s working relationships with local churches. This allows the company to provide opportunities such as visiting a local parish, meeting up with local faith leaders, experiencing a cultural lunch at a community center, attending mass together with the indigenous Christians of the Holy Land, and other special programs designed for Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and Orthodox travelers.
Abreu, who hails from Rio de Janeiro, has been with Gemm Travel for seven years. His extensive background in the travel industry includes over 30 years of working with hotels, airlines, travel agencies and DMCs, as well as multiple tour operators. While he has not always worked in the faith travel market, he enjoys it because “everyone involved is driven by the same passion: faith itself. There’s a feeling that you are part of the same family, all linked by the travel industry, but connected by spiritual values.”
The Holy Land experience
While Gemm Travel does package tours in a number of countries, its Holy Land itineraries are its most popular.
“The Holy Land, and more specific Jerusalem, is the center for the three main monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianism, and Islam,” explains Abreu. “This makes it a melting pot of cultures and religions in one single place, attracting pilgrims from these three faiths, and creating a multicultural environment which you can only live and feel in Jerusalem!”
Another reason for the Holy Land’s impact on faith groups is the convenience of travel between many of its most popular destinations and attractions. “In a truly short drive, you can be standing in the same place where most of the biblical events took place,” says Abreu.
And what are the highlights that should be included in a robust Holy Land itinerary? Abreu’s list includes:
- Tel Aviv/Jaffa
- Mount Tabor
- The Mount of Beatitudes
- Baptism site of Jesus at Bethany
- The Dead Sea
- Ein Karem
With so many places to see during a Holy Land itinerary, travelers often need to make multiple visits just to see it all. But according to Abreu, that’s not the only reason people visit more than once.
“There is always something else to see and to do,” says Abreu. “This is a destination like no other. We have people who come every year for the last 10 years, and every time they feel something unique, they meet people that changed their lives, and they experience God in a profound way.”
Not only are travelers’ experiences different each time they visit, but their reasons for visiting are varied as well.
“Some come to renew their matrimony vows at Canaan, some come with Bible study groups, some come as part of religious communities, and some as pilgrims who come for Easter and Christmas every year,” says Abreu, adding that Pope Benedict XVI declared a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to be “the fifth gospel.”
Though, as mentioned above, there are common highlights on any Holy Land itinerary, there are lesser-known stops that Abreu recommends as well.
“There are some regions and places a bit off from the traditional programs,” says Abreu, “mainly because they require extra time to be visited, and most of the tours are concentrated on the standard areas.”
In Israel and Palestine, these spots include Nablus, Hebron, Taybeh, Ein Gedi, Mar Saba Monastery, Samaria and the Negev desert. In Jordan, travelers may want to experience Mount Nebo, Madaba (including the Church of St. George, featuring the oldest mosaic map of the Holy Land) and Bethany. Forays into Turkey and Egypt also offer plenty of unique experiences, but Abreu notes that travelers would need to allow more time for their journey to include those countries.
What travelers can expect when they return
The COVID-19 crisis of 2020 has presented a new set of challenges for all segments of the travel industry. Abreu believes that, regarding the faith market, “some of the short-term challenges are long-haul travel and group sizes, and how prepared destinations will be to welcome pilgrims in an orderly, safe, and healthy manner. In Israel we are currently following all the new protocols for the hotels, tour operators, airport, and sites, to comply with the government new health and safety measures, so visitors have the confidence and trust to travel safely.”
Abreu agrees with the popular sentiment that as travel reopens, customers’ focus will be on local travel before branching into destinations farther from home. He adds that early emphasis will be on smaller, more personalized groups (such as FIT), and destinations that offer clear and reliable information as to how they are preparing to welcome tourists while following strict health and safety measures.
Abreu also believes that these challenges present unique opportunities for the faith travel market. “Now we can focus more on programs that offer a true local experience and more interaction and engagement with the real people and their lives. The challenges ahead of us are enormous in all aspects of our industry, but faith travel will continue to be a growing segment. We all had to put our lives and industry in a long pause recently, and this also made us reflect about how spirituality and faith play an essential role in our livelihood.”
The growth in the faith market that Abreu refers to is a large reason why he joined the Faith Travel Association.
“FTA membership provides us with a unique chance to work with other tour operators and to grow our market segment in the United States,” he explains. “It’s a privilege for me to be a part of this initiative.”
The benefits of FTA membership were displayed in tangible ways when Abreu attended his first Travel Exchange in 2019.
“I had a great opportunity to meet the key buyers in our segment and establish first-hand contact with them, share experiences, prospect for new business, and ultimately make new friends.”
Abreu’s four reasons to visit the Holy Land
Henrique Abreu, director of global sales and marketing for Gemm Travel, made his first trip to the Holy Land nearly 20 years ago. He has made many visits in the ensuing years, and the region is a place he loves dearly.
“A pilgrimage there is much more than a religious tour,” says Abreu. “It is a journey in our Lord’s footsteps, a time for prayer and meditation, a time to celebrate daily Eucharist, and above all, a personal opportunity for deep spiritual growth.”
When asked why travelers should visit the sacred area, Abreu lists four reasons:
- To unite in prayers with Christians of the Middle East
- To renew their faith
- To support the local communities through pilgrimages or even local church/mission projects
- To give testimony by living the Gospel in His land.
Top photo: The Old City of Jerusalem
Photos by Gemm Travel