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Companies See Increased Interest in Spiritual Tours

By: on Feb. 27, 2007

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.: Tom and Geri Kartes are about to become pilgrims.

They plan to take a lot of photos and record the experience when they go on a faith-based trip to Italy and Bosnia in May. The Grand Rapids couple will visit the Vatican, as well as religious sites in Monte Ste. Angelo, Loreto and Lanciano. In Bosnia, the city of Medjugorje holds a place where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to children every day since 1981.

The Kartes' goal is to develop programs and trips for those who want religious-themed tours and vacations. Launching their own business, they want to jump onto the growing interest in faith-based excursions.

"A lot of people look at it to deepen their faith and enrich their lives and build community within their groups and churches," said Tom Kartes, a former travel agent.

The market for religious travel has grown into an $18 billion industry worldwide. In the past decade, it has expanded into cruise lines, bus trips, escorted tours, and conventions and meetings. That means everything from Bible-study conventions, mixed with Christian music artists and comedians on cruise ships, to Jewish Passover celebrations at resorts, or Christmas-time river excursions through Austria and Germany.

Religious travel used to be a small niche, but in the last five years it has grown into a full-fledged industry, said Kevin Wright, owner of Religious Market Consulting in Littleton, Colo.

"There used to be a conception that religious travelers had a poverty mentality, but now there's an expectation of first-class quality and services," he added.

The interest has risen to the point that in February, Wright launched the World Religious Travel Association, along with Honnie Korngold, founder and president of Christian Travel Finder.

There's also a new Christian travel and tours magazine and more agencies jumping on board to meet the demand, Wright said.

In a single year, "there are more than 600,000 Americans traveling for religious or spiritual purposes and more than a dozen faith-based cruise charters," he said. "Two to 3 percent of travel now is faith-based, and I predict that will double in the next five years because of all that is happening."

Randy Julian, CEO and chairman of the National Tour Association in Alexandria, Va., said one-third of the organization's 600 members now offer faith-based tours. That's up 9 percent since 2003.

"With the rise in spirituality over the last decade or so, (faith-based tourism) goes across all demographics, social and religious lines," Julian said.

As a result, the industry has increased its offerings, he said. "Tour operators and travel agencies have very sophisticated marketing programs that involve more than just a visit to a temple, church or synagogue."

Religious tours are not necessarily more expensive than other tours. Overseas trips can range from $1,800 to more than $4,000, depending on the itinerary, time of year, accommodations and side trips. Trip hosts typically are compensated through the travel agency, based on the number of people traveling.

The industry is benefiting from the growth in Christian music, books such as "The Purpose-Driven Life," and the popularity of movies such as "Passion of the Christ" and even "The Da Vinci Code."

In Grand Rapids, Witte Travel & Tours creates its own faith-based tours. This year, 15 already are planned and booked. They include: "Highlights of Italy: Christianity, Culture & Cuisine," "Orthodox Ukraine: Sailing from Kiev to the Black Sea" and "Christians in Visual Arts _ The Artist and the French Church.' Witte also works with Globus, a world leader in escorted travel based in Littleton, Colo.

Mike Schields, director of emerging markets for the Globus Family of Brands, said faith-based travel is not new, but the predominance of religious products and entertainment has raised the bar. As a result, the tour operator created a religious travel division, which has seen a 650 percent increase in faith-based tours since it was launched in 2004.

Schields said Globus learned in the first year that travelers were not looking for "pilgrimages" of the past, with modest travel and accommodations on limited budgets. Instead, a four-star quality is expected and makes it easier for travel agents to market the tours.

"It has been unbelievable since we started, because people are fascinated with these trips," Schields said.

Marcia and Cornelius Huizinga will embark on their second faith-based tour in three years when they join travel guide Jeff Weima, a New Testament professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, in March on a two-week trip to Turkey to visit biblical and archeological sites. The upcoming tour follows St. Paul's missionary journeys to sites in Turkey, a two-day visit in Istanbul, a boat excursion and study sessions, for a cost of $2,999.

 "I've been in Bible study fellowship for 24 years, and to be able to actually go and see the visual aspects of these places has always been a dream of mine," said Huizinga, 60. "It makes the Scripture come to life."

© 2007 Religion News Service

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