Religious travel industry leaders at the just-concluded World Religious Travel Expo and Educational Conference report better than expected figures and predict continued resilience in faith-based tourism because of the commitment among religious travel consumers.
Positive updates and forecasts by WRTA Expo participants – including representatives from Switzerland, Cyprus, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Germany, Greece and Jordan – confirm the findings of a recent report by the World Tourism Organization, which explained 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.
“Because of the nature of religious tourism, it has proven elastic and strong, even in the current economy” said Kevin J. Wright, president of the World Religious Travel Association (WRTA) and chairman of the Expo.
With more than 300 million people traveling annually for religious and pilgrimage reasons and with revenues that exceed $18 billion every year, faith tourism has become a significant global industry. WRTA reports that faith tourism today is more than just pilgrimages, as it includes travelers on cruises, volunteer vacations, adventure trips, leisure vacations, and conferences and events. In fact, religious travel is not necessarily focused on the destination, but on the purpose of the travel: strengthening fellowship and faith.
Highlights of the second annual Expo:
• Keith Powell, author and “business revivalist,” reminded Expo delegates that they have the “awesome power and responsibility to change lives” through transformative travel experiences.
• Dr. Khouloud Daibes, Palestine minister of tourism and antiquities, participated in the WRTA Expo for the second year in a row. She reported an increase in travel to Palestine and declared her commitment to help travel suppliers build a sustainable and complementary Palestine religious travel portfolio.
• The Holy Land panel, a signature event of the WRTA Expo, once again featured updates from representatives of the Bible Lands. Mesut Ozbe of the Turkish Government Culture and Tourism Office reported that 10% of tourists to Turkey come for religious purposes. Eliezer Hod, Western region director of the Israel Ministry of Tourism, told the audience that he is “completely focused on Christian travel to Israel.” Nayef H. Al-Fayez, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board, reported that Bethany beyond the Jordan – the traditional location of the baptism of Jesus – attracts more Americans than any other nationality outside of Jordan’s neighboring countries. Officials from Greece and Cyprus reported a vigorous and growing religious cruise industry in the Mediterranean, and increasing popularity in monastery guest stays in both countries.
• Greg Stielstra, author of Faith-Based Marketing and Pyromarketing, shared with Expo delegates the importance of “serving” the religious market, not “selling” to it.
• During his opening keynote entitled “Make 2010 Your Best Year Ever” (the official theme of Expo 2009), WRTA President Wright shared plans of his upcoming trip to Armenia, one of the emerging faith-based travel destinations.
• The final night of the conference featured a well-attended optional “Tourism Rocks” event, a charitable dance party to benefit Tourism Cares (http://www.tourismcares.org), the tourism industry’s primary charitable organization for preservation, conservation, restoration and education, and the official philanthropy of WRTA.
2010 Religious Travel Outlook
• Tour operators expect 500,000 visitors for the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, which only happens once a decade.
• Spain has declared 2010 a holy year because the feast of St. James, July 25, falls on a Sunday, which means that many will be traveling to Santiago de Compostela, whose cathedral has a relic of St. James the Apostle.
• The Year for Priests, in which many seminarians and priests are traveling to Ars, France, where St. John Vianney served his entire priestly life, continues through June, 2010.
• A rare exposition of the Shroud of Turin in Italy will open in 2010.
More than 550 participants – including 300 sellers and 200 buyers – attended the 2009 World Religious Travel Expo and Educational Conference, held Nov. 14-16 at the Atlantis Resort in Reno, Nev. Tourism representatives of 30-plus countries, from Armenia and Ethiopia to Tanzania and Turkey, participated. Despite the economic downturn that has contributed to a decline in overall attendance at trade conferences, the WRTA Expo turnout surpassed the attendance figures of its 2008 inaugural year.
The WRTA Expo was co-located with the annual convention of the National Tour Association (NTA). Currently, 35 percent of NTA operators offer religious tour products, and NTA and WRTA seek to expand the overall growth of faith tourism by bringing both memberships opportunities for education and professional development.
Next year’s WRTA Expo will again be held in conjunction with the NTA convention (Nov. 13-17) in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. WRTA already has begun accepting exhibitor, attendee and sponsorship registrations for the 2010 World Religious Travel Expo.
The annual WRTA Expo is sponsored by the World Religious Travel Association, founded in 2007 by Wright. His latest book, The Christian Travel Planner (released 2008 by Thomas Nelson), is the most comprehensive guidebook ever published on faith-based travel. An updated version of his Europe’s Monastery & Convent Guesthouses was released in 2008 by Liguori Publications. (www.wrtaexpo.com, www.wrtareligioustravel.com.)