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Bus and Motor Coach Library

Religious Travel - An 18 Billion Dollar Market

Author- Brian J. Niddery (2001)

Religious travel has seen dramatic growth in recent years and this market it is now estimated to be worth $18-billion each year. This travel segment tends to have a high group travel component, which is potentially attractive to motorcoach and bus operations involved with the charter and tour market.

Although the travel activity in this segment may occur under the auspices or in connection with the many religious organizations that abound across the nation and overseas - churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious learning institutions, much of the planning and organizing of tour itineraries is carried out by individual volunteers and group leaders.  Thus in many ways it may represent a difficult proposition to enter this market; however at the same time it offers a potentially excellent market for growth through repeat and referral business, provided of course an operator can meet or exceed the expectations of this market.
In the minds of some this market also suffers a few shortcomings - organizations under the “not-for-profit” banner that operate sub-standard, sometimes unsafe equipment; unlicensed operations and drivers without proper CDL certification. Much of this activity lies in localized short haul trips that tend to be directed toward the more budget-conscious members of a group.

However there is another side to this market, a market that comprises those cohorts in higher social-economic levels. These religious-market travelers enjoy above average incomes and leisure time, and are prepared to spend rather abundant discretionary dollars on travel products that are high in experiential value, high on educational content, and on a higher overall quality of service.

The key to entering this market is a better understanding of what religious travel and hospitality industry is all about. Posed as a question, one might ask, “What is religious travel?” Typically the concept of religious travel has primarily centered on the notion of pilgrimage. Although this type of journey still remains at the heart of religious travel in many ways, it is no longer a primary form or an appropriate reference point.
Today, according to the World Religious Travel Association, one can define religious travel and hospitality as:

Travel to a Religious Destination

Travel to a religious destination is the most common and traditional meaning and application of the phrase “religious travel.” Virtually all religions have a rich history of valuing and promoting this form of travel. In fact, the term most often associated with this type of journey is pilgrimage. Examples of pilgrimage include traveling to sites affiliated with important religious events, heritage, history and people such as the Holy Land, the Vatican and Mecca.

On a similar yet lighter scale, this particular definition of religious travel also includes journeys to local and regional shrines, as well as to sites such as religious museums and other faith-based attractions. In addition, this definition includes visits to monasteries, convents and other similar religious dwellings. Above all, as pilgrimages and travel to religious destinations are at the heart of many religious traditions and theologies, this form of travel will probably always remain at the forefront of the religious travel and hospitality industry.

Travel to a Religious Gathering

Travel to a religious gathering is the second most common form and definition of “religious travel.” People of faith have been traveling and gathering together since the dawn of humanity and especially for religious purposes and celebrations. In fact, it is believed that “mass tourism” as we know it today, has its roots in religious tourism. Dating back to the Egyptian Empire, people traveled long distances from throughout the land to participate in religious gatherings and ceremonies. From an historical perspective, this is believed to possibly be the genesis of modern-day tourism.

Today is no different. People of all faiths continue to gather together – and in ever larger numbers. The gatherings range from several dozen people to the millions. Moreover, some of the world’s largest annual gatherings that outwardly sometimes may not appear to be religious-based have been spawned through a religious event or need. An example is World Youth Day.  One will find people of faith gathering throughout the world for purposes ranging from worship to celebration to education to business and much more. Taken together, religious gatherings comprise not only a major sector of the “meetings industry,” but also that of religious tourism and mass tourism as a whole.

Travel with a Missionary and/or Humanitarian Intent

A significant aspect of religious travel is in conjunction with a missionary and/or that has a humanitarian intent. This form of travel began to blossom in recent centuries and especially in the last quarter century. People embarking on missionary trips today can be found throughout the world. Although it can take different forms, missionary travel involves the sharing of one’s faith with another people or culture while assisting the local population with humanitarian needs.

Today, the most common and popular form of missionary travel is the short-term mission. Short-term missions are trips that can last from a few days to more than a year. However, most short-term mission trips typically last from seven to fourteen days. The number of people embarking on short-term mission trips has doubled in the past five years, and the future for this type of travel is even more promising.

Volunteer vacations are a related form of missionary travel. On a volunteer vacation, one combines travel with volunteering to a certain cause. This type of travel is also known as volunteer vacations, volunteerism, volunteer travel, voluntourism or vacations with a purpose. Examples of volunteer vacations include building homes, teaching children, providing medical services, planting trees, assisting with natural conservation, cleaning national parks, maintaining historic sites, and aiding a community in need with business, legal or technical expertise or services. Similar to short-term missions, volunteer vacations are experiencing an all-time high in interest, and the future looks even brighter for this type of travel.

Travel with a Fellowship Intent

The fourth and newest definition of religious travel is travel with a fellowship intent. This is in many ways the fastest growing segment of today’s faith tourism marketplace. Fellowship related travel includes everything from religious events, conferences and retreats to cruising, leisure vacations, adventure trips, specialty tours, local getaways, visits to attractions, youth camps and more.

The primary reasons people of faith embark on these types of trips are for the benefits of leisure and fellowship. In other words, although faith may be the uniting factor behind a group’s bond, the leisure and fellowship aspects often serve as the primary motives behind individuals joining a particular trip or event. For example, many people will participate in a religious conference or event, a weekend getaway, retreat, or group vacation with their faith community for the companionship it offers, as well as to experience the advantages of rest, relaxation and renewal. The same concept applies to other fellowship vacations such as cruising, ski trips, visits to national parks, tours that offer an arts & culture aspect, or that may be historical in nature.

Fellowship-related travel is expected to become a significantly larger segment of religious travel in the future. This type of travel is expected to play a major role in the industry’s expansion, which currently encompasses a 300-million person travel market, expending some $18-billion annually. These numbers suggest that this is a market offers a great deal of opportunity for the motorcoach industry.