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International religious travel: Alien encounters

Jordan’s Wadi Rum Desert

The Grand Canyon is amazing, the Smoky Mountains enchanting, and autumn in New York is unlike any other time or place on earth. But if your itineraries are restricted to destinations between sea and shining sea, you’ve only begun to unlock the potential of your church’s travel ministry.

To put it simply, far too many church groups hem themselves in by traveling only within the United States. While the value of exploring this great country can’t be overstated, so much more waits just outside our borders. But many church travel leaders brand their groups as “domestic only.” Often, this is due to misconceptions, ungrounded fears or wrong assumptions about what their travelers would or would not enjoy.

Overseas travel does present some unique challenges that you won’t encounter on a trip to Branson or Yellowstone. But the opportunities that come with traveling internationally far outweigh these challenges. So as you plan your travel for 2011 and beyond, consider these eight compelling reasons to take your group abroad.

1) Group travel is the ideal way to get your feet wet.
With foreign languages, unfamiliar currencies and an entirely different set of cultural habits and customs, international destinations can be intimidating for first-timers. But traveling in a group can alleviate many of these concerns, as your group members can entrust the travel providers with taking care of the details. On a group tour, travelers experience all of the exciting elements of a foreign destination without the logistical headaches. Offer an international trip to your group members, and they may seize on the opportunity to venture out beyond their comfort zones.

2) International travel makes global citizens of us all.
In the United States, it’s easy to forget how we are connected to other cultures in faraway lands. Visiting these lands and interacting with their people reminds us of the common thread of humanity woven through all of our cultures. When we travel abroad, we realize that we are not only citizens of the United States, but also citizens of the world, with a human kinship that knows no borders. Travel is the most personal kind of international relations.

3) You can’t have these experiences at home. 

Whether it’s floating in the Dead Sea, hiking through an Amazon rainforest or browsing the handmade gifts at a Christmas market in Austria, there are many international experiences that simply can’t be replicated at home. The cultural and geographical diversity of the world offers a wealth of breathtaking views and unique interactions that you’ll simply miss if you never go abroad.

4) Being there enlightens your faith.
Traveling in the steps of faith brings a depth and perspective to your personal walk that is simply irreplaceable. See the places where Jesus ministered in the Holy Land, follow Paul’s missionary route in Greece and Turkey, take in the Vatican firsthand or visit the homes of the reformers in Western Europe — whichever track you take, being there yourself will add a new dimension to your own story of faith.

5) Eating there is half the fun.

Tacos in Mexico, shawarma in Jordan or bratwursts in Germany — whatever your favorite ethnic food, it always tastes better in its home country. And one of the great joys of traveling abroad is tasting the wonderful new foods that you’ll never encounter at a restaurant in the United States. If there are foodies in your group, a trip abroad will light up their taste buds in a whole new way.

6) It’s not as expensive as you might think.

One of the chief misconceptions about international travel is that it is too costly for church groups. And while it’s certainly possible to spend a lot of money on a trip abroad, it’s by no means necessary. Many destinations in South America or the Middle East are actually more affordable than American cities, and with the dollar climbing in value against the euro, travel to Europe is becoming surprisingly cost efficient. Do some research, and you’ll find a travel package to meet your group’s budget.

7) Tour operators make it safe and easy.
Working with a reputable tour operator takes nearly all of the hassle out of international travel. These companies take groups abroad all the time, so they know the best and safest places to visit, and will take care of all of the details of the trip. They have plans and protocols in place for emergency situations, and often have specially negotiated prices with vendors to make the trips more affordable.

8) Bet you can’t take just one.
Take your travelers on a tour abroad, and it’s likely that more than a few of them will get bit by the travel bug. Traveling abroad once makes you want to do it again. The more places I visit, the more I want to visit. If you give your travelers one chance to travel internationally with you, they may very well be asking you when they get to do it again. For a church group travel leader, that’s a dream come true.

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.