Faith-based travel continued on its growth trajectory in 2015, despite some international instability. Both in the United States and internationally, faith-based destinations and tour companies saw positive business results for this year and expect to continue to do well in 2016.
The recession of the past decade — and its downward effect on tourism — seems to have ended. And while some smaller companies continue to search for new business in America’s faith-based communities, organizations that specialize in religious tourism reported growth across demographic and denominational lines.
For firsthand accounts of the state of the faith-based travel industry, Going On Faith interviewed the leaders of three organizations to review their business results for 2015, learn about their expectations for 2016 and explore the trends that they see driving the marketplace.
Eyal Carlin, Israel Ministry of Tourism
As consul general and director of the Israel Ministry of Tourism’s Southern Region office, Eyal Carlin works to promote Israel as a destination for faith-based groups throughout the Bible Belt region.
Going On Faith: How has visitation to Israel been in 2015?
Eyal Carlin: We’re averaging between 50,000 and 55,000 American travelers per month. We’re looking at having about 640,000 Americans this year, which will be a record year. So we’re definitely seeing a growth trend.
GOF: How have events in the Middle East impacted tourism to Israel?
EC: These are turbulent times. Last year we had the operation in Gaza. But the bounce-back period is shortening; people are coming back more quickly. People trust the destinations, and things are forgotten very quickly.
GOF: Where is the growth in the market coming from?
EC: Our bread and butter is still individual churches going. But we’re also seeing more themed visits. With the Southern Baptists, for example, the Georgia convention took their worship leaders to Israel as a choir. The Virginia Baptists are taking a trip based on their establishment’s history. The Seventh-day Adventists are taking different divisions from the U.S.
We’re also seeing an increase in interest from the travel trade. That’s a natural reaction to what happened in 2014; a lot of people dropped Israel from their portfolios in 2015 but are coming back for 2016. We’re seeing more sophisticated travel packages to Israel that also include history and cultural elements. So we’re definitely seeing a reintroduction of Israel into big tour operators’ packages.
GOF: What are today’s travelers to Israel asking for?
EC: A lot of faith-based travel is premium packages; they include expert tour guides, very good hotels and very good transportation and all of the must-see sights. There are companies in Israel now offering add-ons, such as interfaith studies. There are institutes that work through the tour operators that offer joint studies that could be together with a rabbi, a priest and a pastor living in Israel. There are some initiatives that are Israeli-Palestinian. There’s one called Breaking Bread, where they offer hosting in the homes of both Jews and Palestinians. You can meet a secular family and an ultraorthodox family, or a Muslim family.
Also popular are the archaeological digs that invite tourists to come participate; those are called Digs for a Day. Those are going strong, and they will be ongoing for the next few years.
GOF: What are your expectations for 2016?
ec: We’re very optimistic; it seems like things are very positive. The government of Israel has allocated more money for promoting tourism for 2016.
Tour operators are reporting strong bookings. In 2016, Delta is introducing four new weekly flights from JFK, and United Airlines is introducing a direct flight from San Francisco to Tel Aviv. El Al started a flight from Boston this year.
The price of fuel has come down, and that can influence airfares. And general prices have come down a bit.