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After-dinner devotionals are a popular part of faith-based tours.

Unique experiences in faith-based travel

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postedSeptember 2, 2019
Faith travel is a growing segment of the group travel market that includes pilgrimages, visits to holy sites, mission and humanitarian trips, pastor-led retreats and congregational leisure trips. If you are a group leader interested in planning a faith-centered trip, tapping the expertise of a tour operator can help you get the best experience and price for your travelers.

Two tour operator companies that provide in-depth faith travel packages are Reformation Tours and Globus. Reformation Tours specializes in Christian and cultural tours of Europe and biblical sites in Turkey, Greece, Jordan and Israel, and Globus offers religious vacations and special events around the world. Rowena Drinkhouse of Reformation Tours and Globus’ Joanna Dyer discuss their companies’ tour programs and share trends they’ve observed in faith travel.

Rowena Drinkhouse at Wartburg Castle
Rowena Drinkhouse of Reformation Tours at Germany’s Wartburg Castle

What is your definition of faith travel?

Drinkhouse: I would define it as “travel from a faith perspective with like-minded people.” We focus on Europe from a Christian perspective, but faith travel encompasses all religious groups. Travel for affinity groups is always a lot of fun.

Dyer: The definition of faith-based travel can be broad, from pilgrimages and missions to leisure tours or cruises. For those looking for a more meaningful travel experience, Globus and Cosmos offer an enlightening collection of faith-based vacations around the world that represent inspiring places to bow heads and lift hearts.

Who are your customers for your faith tours?

Drinkhouse: Our main demographic is seniors, but we’ve had clients aged 8–97 this year. Some of our tours are youth-focused for schools and seminaries, but most of our trips are designed for ages 50-plus.

Dyer: We reach a wide range of travelers interested in faith-based travel, from solo travelers to baby boomers to multi-generational families and groups (including religious organizations, student groups and alumni groups). Faith travel reaches every demographic.

Joanna Dyer of Globus visiting Lourdes, France
Joanna Dyer of Globus visiting Lourdes, France

With travelers increasingly seeking authentic experiences at destinations, what types of programs do you offer to connect them with local faith communities and traditions?

Drinkhouse: We like to arrange fellowship with churches, and we have contact with many English-speaking churches all over Europe. Sometimes our groups go to French or German churches, too, giving them an opportunity to mingle with locals.

Some exciting initiatives in Europe include the Serve the City program, where people can volunteer during their tours. Another way to get to know another community is to use local, specialist guides. In Prague, for instance, we use a Jewish guide for the tour of the synagogues and Jewish parts of the city.

Dyer: Travelers want to immerse themselves culturally in their destinations, so our faith-based itineraries include VIP insight into the cultural and historical relevance of each stop along the way. To help them connect with their faith, our local guides point out religiously significant places on the journey and offer unique insights and stories. Many of our itineraries also include opportunities to join the local religious services.

Additionally, on our Holy Land trips, we offer our travelers the chance to get involved in our “Cosmos Community.” For this program we partner with three organizations that invite our travelers to engage in light volunteer work like preparing food baskets for those in need in Jerusalem, helping locals in Nazareth Village or planting olive trees in Madaba.

What emerging trends in faith travel have you seen recently that impacted how you organize or operate your tours?

Drinkhouse: We’re seeing country tourist boards recognize the wide appeal of faith travel. Many tourist boards, such as Switzerland’s, have special faith-based travel sections on their websites and resources for travel professionals.

Another trend is event-based travel, a key trend in faith travel, and a great hook to get people interested in joining a tour. Oberammergau is a good example. This once-in-a-decade event is a Passion play that has been produced by villagers in a small town in Bavaria since 1633.

Dyer: The 500th anniversary of the Reformation was big this year in Germany. Another example is Fatima, Portugal, which enjoyed increased interest with the 100th Anniversary of the Apparitions of Fatima in 2017. Both of those events helped make it a record-breaking year, our best since our launch of faith-based itineraries in 2004.

Another emerging trend we have seen is anniversary travel. Churches with a special anniversary like to celebrate by offering their congregations an opportunity to travel together. They may plan to visit a sister church or simply travel together to a U.S. location to celebrate their long history. We can craft a custom tour and build an itinerary specific to the needs of any group.

Sites such as St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg (pictured) have welcomed many visitors this year to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Sites such as St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg (pictured) have welcomed many visitors this year to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. (Photo by Reformation Tours)

What are a couple of faith destinations that you’ve added to your itineraries for 2018?

Drinkhouse: We have recently added a special program at Durham Cathedral in England, as they offer exclusive evening access. The groups go to Evensong, have a private tour, and then dine in the cathedral restaurant. This outing combines well with a trip to The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, a historical island of religious significance off the northeast coast of England. We are also doing several new tours for U.S. church groups that are visiting their connected congregations in Europe. These trips offer a chance for fellowship and encouragement and are a great way to connect internationally.

Dyer: We are starting to book trips for travelers interested in the upcoming 2020 Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, and we are already seeing high demand for tours to Lourdes, France, for the 160th Anniversary of the Apparitions next year. We are offering three new vacations that spotlight Lourdes: the 11-day Marian Shrines of Europe, the 6-day Pilgrimage to Lourdes and the 20-day Spiritual Highlights of Iberia, Lourdes and Italy. The latter is an extremely inclusive tour that features some of Europe’s most popular faith-based sites including Fatima, Portugal; Santiago de Compostela, Spain; Lourdes, France; and San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy. This itinerary also offers travelers the opportunity to join a Papal Audience in Rome.

We are also seeing an increase in custom tour requests for groups of 20 or more that want to plan their trip to meet their exact needs. In fact, customized itineraries with a faith-based theme are up over 50 percent in 2017, and we anticipate this trend to continue in 2018. In addition, we continue to see many groups that simply want to travel together to build faith and community, even if the trip is to a domestic location. Whether it’s a U.S. national parks tour or seeing the spectacular fall foliage in New England, a faith-based experience does not always have to be in what we view as a faith-based destination.

What advice would you give group travel planners regarding faith travel and working with tour operators?

Drinkhouse: Ideally group travel planners should contact tour operators who regularly plan and conduct faith-based tours, as it’s a specialty product. It’s not just a question of knowing which cities to include in the itinerary; it’s about knowing why groups should go there. What people can they meet, and what volunteer work can they do nearby? A tour operator experienced in the faith market can make suggestions about customizing your trip and provide unique experiences that will make the trip unforgettable for your group.

Dyer: Faith-based travelers looking at popular destinations like Spain, Portugal, Germany or Israel—especially those traveling in a group—need to book six to nine months out as these tours sell out quickly, and demand is high. Your best bet is to start planning your trip early with an experienced faith-travel tour operator who can handle all the details and make trip planning seamless for you.

Top photo: After-dinner devotionals are a popular part of faith-based tours.
Photo by Reformation Tours