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WRTA Hears Positive Reports

RENO, Nev. — Global leaders in faith-based travel reported better than expected figures at the World Religious Travel Expo, crediting the commitment and purpose of religious travelers with sustained traffic during this year’s recession.

Representatives from various countries, including Switzerland, Cyprus, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Germany, Greece and Jordan shared updates and forecasts indicating that the faith tourism market continued to flourish in 2009, despite an overall drop-off in international tourism.

“Because of the nature of religious tourism, it has proven elastic and strong, even in the current economy,” said Kevin Wright, president of the World Religious Travel Association (WRTA) and chairman of the expo. “We have challenged our members to make 2010 their best year ever in faith tourism, and I am confident coming out of this expo that they will accomplish that.”

In its second year, the expo was attended by more than 550 participants, including 300 travel sellers from more than 30 countries, and 200 travel agents and other buyers. In spite of the economic downturn that has contributed to a decline in overall attendance at trade conferences, this year’s event surpassed attendance from its inaugural year in 2008.

The expo was co-located with the National Tourism Association’s annual convention in Reno, Nevada.

Travel with a purpose
WRTA estimates that some 300 million people travel for religious and pilgrimage reasons each year, contributing more than $18 billion to the global tourism economy. Several destinations at the expo reported positive signs in faith-based travel.

“We didn’t witness negative growth in 2007 or 2008,” said Kouloud Daibes, Palestine’s minister of tourism and antiquities. “Hopefully for this year we will have experienced an increase as well. It’s still challenging, but we’re organizing FAM trips and reaching out to new markets.”

These results are in line with the findings of a recent study by the World Tourism Organization, which showed that religious tourism has proven resilient to the pressure of the global recession because it is not seen as a luxury but rather “travel with a purpose.”

Chryssanthos Petsilas, deputy director of the Greek National Tourism Organization, said that faith-based travel has helped maintain the inflow of American tourists, who contribute the most to local economies.

“Americans are the best tourists,” he said. “They spend four to five times as much as other travelers. They go to two to four countries on each trip, and see two to four destinations in each country.”

During the expo’s Holy Land Panel, representatives from other countries in the Middle East and Mediterranean also shared positive statistics for faith-based travel. Mesut Ozbe of the Turkish Government Culture and Tourism Office reported that 10 percent of tourists to Turkey come for religious purposes. Officials from Greece and Cyprus reported a growth in religious cruise traffic in the Mediterranean, along with an increase in the popularity of monastery guest stays in both countries.

Outlook for 2010
Throughout the expo, presenters and attendees expressed a general optimism for 2010. Much of it surrounds special religious events throughout Europe that are expected to draw tourists from the United States and around the world.

The best known event will the be the Oberammergau Passion Play, with performances taking place throughout the summer in Germany. Tour operators expect 500,000 visitors to see the play, which is produced only once every decade.

Spain has declared 2010 a holy year because the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday. Tourism officials there expect to see a large pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, where a local cathedral has a relic of St. James the Apostle.

A rare exposition of the Shroud of Turin in Italy is set to take place April 10-May 23.

ONLINE ONLY: Check out our exclusive video interviews with tourism officials from Jordan and Palestine, plus an interview with religious travel expert Cindi Brodhecker, in our Video Hub.

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.