After years of sustained growth across the board, the faith-based travel industry saw mixed results in 2013.
Although some organizations continued on the growth trajectories established in the past several years, others began to see the effects of regional conflict, unfavorable news coverage and other challenges.
To gain some real-world insight on the state of faith-based tourism, Going On Faith interviewed three leaders in the industry about their business results for 2013, their expectations for 2014, and the factors and trends that are driving their experiences in the marketplace.
Their responses paint a picture of an industry that has tremendous potential but also a number of challenges to overcome.
As president of Rochester, Minnesota-based tour operator Ed-Ventures, Paul Larsen has been involved in faith-based tourism for years and helps to lead NTA’s Faith-Based Tourism Advisory Council.
GOF: How has your faith-based traffic been in 2013?
PL: It’s been on the increase. During 2008 and 2009, when the economy tanked, the faith-based market held up pretty well. We’re experiencing gradual growth in faith-based travel, and it’s contributing in large part to the overall growth of our company.
GOF: Do you expect that growth to continue in 2014?
PL: I do see an upward trend for next year. We’re expecting an increase of about 15-20 percent in faith-based tours.
GOF: What kinds of trips are selling well?
PL: We take people to the Holy Lands, Greece and Turkey. There’s also a big demand for the canonization of Pope John Paul II in Italy next year. We’re seeing events like the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther coming up, and we’re getting calls for that. There are also a lot of tours going to the shrines of Quebec next year.
Faith-based travel can be anywhere a person wants to go, not just the Holy Lands. It can be a day trip to Sight and Sound Theatres or just time to fellowship with each other and enjoy creation.
GOF: What factors do you think are contributing to this success?
PL: I think the marketplace is becoming aware of faith-based tourism. The more that people understand the market, the more there will continue to be demand.
As for the travelers, the dollar is not the first criteria in why they decide to travel. They’re looking for something else. Travel isn’t something you have to spend money on — it’s discretionary spending. But people will spend the money to go on a faith-based journey.
GOF: What trends are you seeing among your customers?
PL: Almost everyone that takes a trip to the Holy Land then wants to go somewhere else. They look at Turkey, Greece, Rome or Europe. Some of them can’t afford to do an international trip every year, so they ask where they can go that’s closer to home.
The Israel Ministry of Tourism says that their repeat travel rate is about 45-55 percent a year. It wouldn’t surprise me if that number held out for the faith-based market as a whole.
GOF: How are you reaching new faith-based travelers today?
PL: Some of it is referrals, but it depends on who your target is. If it’s pastors, you have to go to them. They’re busy people with a lot of demands. You have to build a relationship of trust with them. They have eight offers on their desk from other guys like us. So it’s about understanding their needs and educating them a bit about what travel can do for them and their congregation. Travel breaks down walls and builds bridges.
Director, Jordan Tourism Board North America
In 1997, Malia Asfour established the Jordan Tourism Board North America on behalf of the Jordanian government to market Jordan to American and Canadian travelers. Faith-based travel represents a large portion of visitation to Jordan from North America, and Asfour is active in the faith-based travel industry.
GOF: What was faith-based visitation to Jordan like in 2013?
MA: Traffic to Jordan, unfortunately, has been affected by the regional situation around us. Egypt and Syria have affected us. We’re victims of misperception mainly because of the media and the sensationalism that goes around.
It’s difficult to predict exact numbers in the faith-based market, but I’ve seen resilience in the faith and adventure travel markets. The faith-based travelers believe in fate, and they also have an understanding of the region and where they’re going. An adventure traveler isn’t affected by the fear factor as much, either.
GOF: How are you counteracting these negative perceptions?
MA: We’ve learned to work with the media to help Jordan’s image and to sustain us in the market. We bring press trips to Jordan, and these journalists become huge ambassadors for us.
The MSNBC and FOX and CNNs of the world have bigger coverage than these Catholic publications or religious publications that we work with. So what we do is more targeted and focused. The impact that they have is strong within their readership and community. But we’re chipping away at a big block of ice.
GOF: What things would need to change in the region to make people feel better about coming?
MA: The more that people are educated about the region, the more business will come back. It’s a part of the world that has had all sorts of political issues for 2,000 years, and that’s not going to change. But Jordan is the Switzerland of the Middle East, a land of peace and refuge. The more that the media understands it, and the more they broadcast it to others, the more of a chance that we have of increasing tourism to Jordan.
GOF: What are you doing to reach out directly to travel planners?
MA: We had a product development trip that we put together with NTA. We brought 13 different tour operators to Jordan. They toured the country and had face-to-face, one-on-one meetings with Jordanian ground operators. They were really able to understand what Jordan is all about.
GOF: What trends are you seeing in visitor interest?
MA: We’ve seen a definite increase of interest in the culinary world. We think this will continue to grow due to the fact that Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food is known for being healthy. We also see interest happening in wine tasting and wine tours within the country.
GOF: What are your expectations for 2014?
MA: I wish I had an insight. We’re noticing that Americans tend to forget fast, so there’s a rebound starting to happen, providing that the news stays where it is right now. We’re beginning to see more demand from the tour operators that we’re talking to, and some have seen some increase in bookings. So it’s nice to hear that, but it’s hard to forecast.
Promotions Manager, Billy Graham Library
Located on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina, the Billy Graham Library is run by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Sonya Johnson is responsible for initiatives that attract individuals, groups and families to visit the faith-based attraction.
GOF: Tell us about your faith-based visitation in 2013.
SJ: Our largest attendance month is going to be December because of the Christmas season, so we don’t have final figures yet. But we have had 95,000 visitors to date as of November 8. That’s up slightly over last year to date. We’re up by about 3 percent.
GOF: What do you expect for 2014?
SJ: We’re expecting it to continue to grow into next year. Based on what we’ve seen this year and some interest that we’ve got in upcoming events, we’re very hopeful that the numbers will grow.
GOF: Do special events play a large role in driving visitation for you?
SJ: Yes, events are a good way to attract folks that may know about the library but haven’t gotten here yet. We do things like our Christmas at the Library events or book signings. Families are looking at events that their children can come to.
We love doing events, but we’re really about evangelism and the “Journey of Faith” exhibit, which is what the library is all about. So whenever we do an event, we always want people to take the tour.
GOF: How are you reaching out to the group tourism market?
SJ: From a tourism standpoint, relationships are key. We have relationships with the Going On Faith Conference and the American Bus Association, as well as CVBs and other attractions in our area. We get paired a lot with NarroWay Productions or the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and we work with the local visitors bureaus to put together packages with those partners.
For faith-based travel, we’re also working with groups and conferences that handle the domestic market. We go to several youth conferences and participate in things like the Winter Jam Tour.
GOF: What trends are you seeing in the tourism market?
SJ: With our groups, experiential tourism was a buzzword last year, so we created a history and heritage package. That gives them a guided tour through the Journey of Faith at the library, where we try to highlight elements of the tour that might speak to them. Then they get to take a tour of our media services department and see projects that we’re working on.