Plenty like to keep the faith

Whether it's a pilgrimage, religious-themed cruise or the chance to travel with fellow believers, many seek a holy touch to their holidays.

It's probably the oldest form of tourism but it's not showing any sign of waning. Hundreds of millions of travellers a year are taking part in religious-oriented travel, or "faith tourism", whether to learn more about their religion or just to travel with like-minded folk.

Religious tourism tends to be associated with pilgrimages, such as the annual hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, but a new report highlights its many forms.

Understanding Faith Tourism, by the US-based tourism marketing company Group University, says faith tourism can include leisure tours, missionary and volunteer trips, crusades and conventions, religious retreats and visits to religious attractions and shrines.

A fast-growing trend is faith-based cruises, which can be either offered by the cruise line or organised as a charter cruise.

"Some cruise lines offer religious-themed itineraries like Holy Land or Lands of the Bible cruises," the report says.

"Today's hot trend is fund-raising cruises, where cruise lines offer matching funds or other amenities for the group."

The report says faith-based cruises are usually not restricted to religious groups, but the faith-themed excursions provide an alternative to a standard cruise.

A faith-based cruise can be simply a leisure cruise with like-minded passengers on board or the cruise destination might hold importance.

"Popular options today include missions or Christian school teacher cruises, study groups and mission project cruises with a small project planned at every port," it says.

One cruise line that has tapped into the religious market is Avalon Waterways, which operates specialist cruises including a Jewish heritage-themed itinerary.

Options from other operators include a Mormon cruise and many Christian-themed itineraries.

Another growing area is schoolies trips, with organisations such as the Scripture Union Queensland and Schoolies Revolution offering Christian-oriented alternatives to the standard end-of-school trip.

SU Schoolies offers drug- and alcohol-free trips to holiday spots including the Whitsundays and Sunshine Coast, combining adventure activities with Christian elements such as guest speakers.

Schoolies Revolution offers three-week missionary-style trips to Third World countries, to encourage school-leavers to step out of their comfort zone and help the poor.

One of the biggest elements of faith tourism, aside from pilgrimages, is simply "fellowship" travel, where people choose to travel with others who share their beliefs rather than join a mainstream tour.

The founding director of the specialist travel agency Christian Fellowship Tours, John Cronshaw, says his business is all about giving Christians the opportunity to travel with like-minded people.

"It's no different to a garden club going somewhere," he says.

Cronshaw says his agency, which is based in the Blue Mountains, offers some specialised trips, such as a "Steps of Paul Cruise", but the majority of tours are to popular travel destinations.

The itineraries are similar to those offered by mainstream operators but they include morning prayers and the opportunity to attend church along the way.

One of the only mainstream tour operators that actively targets the religious tourism market is the Globus group, which has a dedicated religious travel brochure.

The company offers itineraries such as "Lourdes and Shrines of France" and "Grand Catholic Italy".

The marketing manager Australasia, Christian Schweitzer, says the company sees value in the niche and has this year expanded its offering to include a series of tours under its budget brand, Cosmos.

Schweitzer says global bookings for its religious tours number in the thousands yearly, with Australia's contribution "small but steady".

"This tends to spike every 10 years when we operate tours that take in the Passion play in Oberammergau in Germany," he says.

"Our 2010 tours were a sellout success because of the uniqueness of the Passion play."

Greece and Mediterranean Travel Centre also offers faith-based trips and has just released a "Celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land" tour.

The believers

While there is no known study on the total size of the faith tourism market, the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimates the pilgrim sector alone accounts for more than 300 million people a year.

The UNWTO also estimates there are about 600 million national and international religious and spiritual voyages in the world.

About 40 per cent of these are in Europe, while more than half are within Asia.

The UNWTO says religious tourism should be given the same respect as the "sun, sea and sand holidays that are readily marketed" by the travel industry.

jane@janeefraser.com.au

The story Plenty like to keep the faith first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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