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Faith Travel: Against all odds

Courtesy Israel Ministry of Tourism

In a travel market where business is heavily susceptible to economic forces and geopolitical volatility, faith-based tourism appears to defy the odds.

According to a new study on the faith-based travel industry, religious tourism has grown significantly in recent years, even as economies have faltered, unrest has spread in the Middle East, and stateside trade associations aimed at promoting faith travel have fizzled. And tour operators and destinations representatives throughout the industry report that business has increased and diversified throughout 2012, making faith-based travel one of the brightest spots in the tourism industry.

A Growing Market
Globus, which has a division that specializes in faith-based vacations under its Globus and Cosmos brands, commissioned research group TravelStyles to conduct a study of the faith-based travel market and released the results in 2012. This study was a follow-up to a similar study conducted in 2007, and it showed that this corner of the travel industry has grown substantially.

“The market increased in size by 5 percent,” said Mike Schields, managing director of groups and emerging markets for Globus. “I would have bet that it was going to shrink because of the economy, the Arab Spring and the problems in the Middle East. And there’s a lot of talk about the secularization of America, so I thought that the market might shrink. It’s pretty impressive to find out that there was actually growth in this market sector.”

The study found that one of the factors in overall market growth was an increase in repeat business. Travelers who take trips to the Holy Land, for instance, are returning several years later to do faith-based trips in Europe and other destinations.

Demographic changes have also benefited the faith-based travel industry.

“Ages continue to drop,” Schields said. “That extends the life of the potential religious traveler. Instead of the typical traveler being 55 to 75 years old, people are starting to take these trips in their 40s.”

Churches seem to be a driving force behind the growth in religious travel. The study showed that the number of people who are booking travel through a church or religious organization has increased, underscoring the importance of church leadership and group travel planners in encouraging faith-based travel.

Real-World Growth
Other tourism organizations have seen real-world growth that backs up the results of the Globus study. Image Tours and Travel, a faith-based tour operator, has seen strong growth in business for years.

“There’s an absolute increase in interest in faith-based tourism,” said owner Rick Ricart. “We’ve seen anywhere from a 7 percent increase up to a 12 percent increase every year. This is supposed to be the worst economy, but we’re actually seeing more folks travel with us. We’ve experienced an increase of 8 to 10 percent every year for the last seven years, and a couple of years we’ve had 15 to 20 percent increases.”

Haim Gutin, commissioner of the Israel Ministry of Tourism, said that 2012 was a banner year for the iconic faith-based travel destination.

“We think we’re going to have a record year in 2012,” he said. “We’re probably going to pass 700,000 visitors from the United States. Last year, we had a total of about 3.5 million visitors, and this year, we believe we’ll be around 3.7 million tourists from all over the world.

“We assume that we’re going to have a good year in 2013. A lot of our tour operators are saying that their groups are full and that people are coming to Israel.”

This new year also brings signs of promise for Globus’ faith division, which experienced a drop after the much anticipated Oberammergau Passion Play made 2010 a high-water mark.

“In reality, 2011 and 2012 were pretty down years for us, but 2013 is looking huge,” Schields said. “We’re up 50 to 60 percent on volume and triple digits on deposits. That means that group leaders are actually coming through with names and deposits. It looks like 2013 is going to be our big comeback year.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.