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The Earliest Form of Tourism

The importance of the Religious Tourism Market
By Dr. Peter E. Tarlow, President, From "Tourism Tidbits" October 2014 Newsletter

Religious tourism is one of the earliest forms of tourism. The idea of the religious pilgrimage begins almost with the dawn of humanity.  Almost since the dawn of history human beings have traveled to holy sites.  By the Biblical period important religious centers had become not only a part of the cultural landscape, but they also had become major players in local marketing and important parts of the economy of those cities that hosted religious centers.  In the western world, cities such as Jerusalem, Rome and Mecca continue to attract millions of visitors on a yearly basis. Religious-oriented travel then has occurred since the first pilgrimages.  In recent years, however, religious travel and tourism has developed into a much larger and more segmented market. Today's religious travel includes multiple sub-niches that range from the luxury pilgrimage market to backpacking and from religious institutional travel to volunteer-oriented experiences meant to help those in some form of need.

When thinking of religious tourism most communities tend to believe that this form of tourism does not apply to their locale, unless they are a major pilgrimage destination.  Religious tourism, however, is not only destination oriented. It can also imply attracting large segments of the market.

Religious tourism is not only a visitation to a particular holy destination, but may also be travel for a humanitarian cause, for reasons of friendship or even as a form of leisure.  Religious travel can be the primary reason for a trip but it can also be part of a trip and provide a destination with additional attractions.  A common mistake is assuming that a traveler must be of a particular religion in order to visit a specific religious site. For example, although the Vatican holds special meaning for followers of the Catholic faith, millions of non-Catholics also visit the Vatican both for its spirituality and for its architectural beauty.  The island of Curaçao is home to the Western Hemisphere's oldest synagogue and this synagogue is not only a national monument for Curaçao but also one of its major tourism attractions both for Jews and non-Jews alike. 

Here are a few major things to consider regarding religious tourism and travel

-Do not assume that faith based tourism is only for one segment of the market. Faith based travel cuts across all ages and economic sectors.  In fact, Faith based tourism, although often dominated by group or affinity groups is also gaining ground among the individual leisure travel.   Especially among young people (who compose about one third of the faith-based visitors) there is a great number of people who seek spiritual aspects to their vacations. Think through what areas of your community offer a chance to increase self-awareness or spirituality.  Because religious institutions often travel as groups, they are often able to offer less expensive packages for their constituents. 

-The religious and faith based market has the advantage of appealing to people from around the world, of all ages and of all nationalities.  Tourism and travel professionals should be aware that this market might well double by the year 2020.  To add to this number many faith-based travelers prefer to travel in groups rather than as individuals.

-Religious tourism is big business.  It is estimated that in the US alone some 25% of the traveling public is interested in faith-based tourism. When one adds to this the number of people who travel for faith-based conventions, and faith based activities such as weddings, bar mitzvahs or funerals, the number become extraordinarily large. World Religious Travel is one of the fastest growing segments in travel today. Religious travel is estimated at a value of US$18 billion and 300 million travelers strong.

-Be aware that in unstable economic times religious travel is often less prone to economic ups and downs.  Because faith-based travelers are committed travelers they tend to save for these religious or spiritual experiences and travel despite the state of the economy.   Faith travelers tend to have different motives for travel then do travelers for other reasons.  For example, the faith-based traveler often travels as part of a religious obligation, to fulfill a spiritual mission or to show support for a particular cause.  During economically difficult times faith-based travel can provide a steady flow of income to a local tourism economy.

-Although any tourism professionals should be able to handle this market those who have an appreciation of religion and spirituality tend to do best with travelers in this market.  It is essential to be sensitve to the great variety of special travel needs within this market. Among the things to consider are types of food served, types of music played and when activities take place.  Be aware of religious calendars and specific travel prohibition days such as fast days. As in other forms of tourism it is essential to know your market. For example, airlines that do not offer vegetarian meals may loose a portion of the faith-based market whose religion has specific food restrictions.

-Connect your local secondary industries with your faith-based tourism.  All too often the spirituality that visitors seek is lost at the level of supporting industries.  During faith based tourism periods it is essential that hotels and restaurants connect with the arts and cultural communities to develop an overall faith based product rather than a mishmash of unrelated offerings.

- Although Israel is the number one preference of western faith-based travelers followed by Italy and then England, faith-based tourism can exist almost anywhere.  There is no doubt that it helps to have a major religious center, such as Jerusalem, Mecca, or Rome most locales will never have such holy sites.  Lack of a religious center does not mean however that a location cannot develop faith-based tourism.  Florida has created its own Bible land, and multiple cities around the world have found ways to incorporate religious holidays into their tourism product.

-Even smaller tourism locations ought to consider dedicating at least some time to developing local faith-based tourism.  Often tourism professionals have little or nothing to do with the faith-based community other than knowing their own religion's leader(s).  Take the time to meet with local religious leadership, ask them if they attract visitors for family events, religious retreats, or faith-based study.  Often these people feel disconnected from the tourism community and have a great deal of both marketing knowledge and expertise to share.  While working with these religious leaders see if you can develop a joint business plan and never forget to ask them how you as a travel or tourism professional can be of help to each one of them.

-Be aware of new and exciting resources.  For examples the website www.grouple.comhas a whole section dedicated to religious travel. Major religious institutions also maintain travel centers for people of their faith.

The religious travel boom now also means it is easier for tourists to research their trips and find a vacation suited to their exact needs. Thus promote your faith based local companies. For example list locations where kosher food is available, where travelers can find Christian music and how travelers can visit local houses of worship, many of which are great places to see special works of art or to learn about the local culture.

About the Author:  Dr. Peter E. Tarlow is the President of Tourism and More, a founder of the Texas chapter of TTRA and a popular author and speaker on tourism. Tarlow is a specialist in the areas of sociology of tourism, economic development, tourism safety and security. Tarlow speaks at governors' and state conferences on tourism and conducts seminars throughout the world and for numerous agencies and universities.  

You are welcome to reproduce "Tourism Tidbits" or any part of "Tourism Tidbits" with proper citing.   All articles sent to "Tourism Tidbits" and accepted for publication are owned by "Tourism Tidbits" and may be subjected to editorial review and rewriting (with permission of the author). All questions about "Tourism Tidbits" or suggestions cancellations should be addressed to Dr. Peter E. Tarlow at
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