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On a wing and a prayer

Faith-based tourism is becoming an industry unto itself. Some of the travel options are downright kooky, while others have the potential to bring a fractious world closer together.

By Lee Simpson

Conventioneers swarm food-laden tables in the gardens of a swanky hotel in suburban Orlando, Fla. Chicken tacos and cheesecake nibbles are devoured by sari-clad guides from India, travel agency and cruise-line executives in business suits, American mission-tour leaders in jeans and sandals, and representatives of government tourism ministries. Apparently caught off guard by a request for an alcohol-free reception, hotel staff members seem lost as to what beverage to substitute. Guests in sundresses with sweatshirts layered on top clutch Styrofoam cups as the sun sets on a chilled but enthusiastic crowd. A group of elegantly dressed Europeans seem puzzled by the very notion that a reception could be held without wine.

After a couple of false starts, the sound system comes to life. Kevin Wright, an articulate preacher of the gospel of faith-based travel, exhorts the crowd: “Forget what you think you know: it might once have been ‘pilgrimage, retirees and the budget-minded.’ . . . Today’s faith-based travel is ‘cruises, voluntourism, ecotourism’ — mission plus adventure! Forget shrines!” (Some Italian guests visibly blanch.) “It’s shriving, it’s snorkelling and it’s seeking.” Wright leaves the microphone, beaming with evangelical fervour.

Welcome to the debut conference of the World Religious Travel Association. It won’t be the last. There is big money in faith-based travel: $18 billion annually, according to the World Tourism Organization, generated by 330 million visits to the world’s key religious sites alone. And, for those who profit from it, the definition of “religious travel” expands daily. These days, it includes everything from traditional pilgrimages, such as the annual Muslim Hajj to Mecca, to spa and spirit weekends where prayers and pedicures top the agenda.

Worldwide, one-third of all travellers are likely to take a faith-inspired trip at least once, according to a recent study, with the Middle East and Asia Pacific registering the most spectacular growth. Several factors are fuelling the increase. One is more disposable income. A pilgrimage to the Hindu temple of Badrinath would have remained a dream for most Indians 20 years ago; newfound wealth from call centres and construction sites now makes it an increasing reality. Additionally, the quest for authentic experience has sent western Europeans, North Americans and well-heeled Asians scrambling around the ruins of temples, synagogues and mosques all over the East. For some it’s a pilgrimage; for others it’s another item off the bucket list.

A stroll through the convention’s trade expo reveals an embarrassment of fixes for the faith-travel junkie. At Booth 109, a sweet-faced young woman from Pennsylvania hands out a one-page photocopied sheet extolling the virtues of Amish buggy rides and all-you-can-eat smorgasbords. Two booths down, a team in matching T-shirts (“Go with God”) touts alternative spring breaks: students with a calling (and a desire to keep their clothes on) can skip the beach and opt to rebuild New Orleans — bricks and Bible study included.

Brochures invite prospective voyagers to explore the Grand Canyon from a creationist perspective, or join Discovery Cruise Line’s “Vacation with a purpose,” or “Go ye into all the world” with Christian Travel Finder — it’s “not just for missionaries.”

Understanding the phenomenon of faith-based tourism demands a quick lesson in industry-speak. Take your pick from “mission tours” (proselytizing is expected) to “participatory travel” (teach a skill, not the Word) to “Cruise with a Cause,” which is both a type of travel and the name of a company that offers 2,000 like-minded followers 10 days on the high seas, 30 “acts” and many opportunities to give.

I join an audience of travel agents, tourism officials and church travel planners settling into their seats for an afternoon of speakers. We are treated to chocolates from Switzerland (“Visit the country with the cross on the flag for Calvin’s anniversary,” says their sales rep). Maurice Zarmati, president of Costa Cruise Lines, brings the audience up to speed on faith-based cruising. A former marketer for a traditional cruise line where all-you-can-eat buffets are a big part of the attraction, Zarmati quips, “You welcomed them on as passengers and rolled them off as cargo.” Cruises in the age of enlightenment are less hedonistic, more budget-conscious, he says. Some of the would-be travel guides at my table clearly like the idea — cruises serve up a captive audience of parishioners who can’t get away unless they literally jump ship.

Next up: Linville Johnson of Bahamas’ ministry of tourism. “We cannot claim to have the place where Jesus was born, but we can show you where God lives,” he says. An accompanying sales brochure for a Bahamian Cruise ’N’ Stay Vacation offers the option of a day “serving the less fortunate in Grand Bahama,” presumably before reboarding a well-stocked ship.

Over drinks that night (yes, there is a bar), attendees surreptitiously shed shoes and trade Tylenol. These are warm, friendly people, travel professionals who feel privileged to combine a love of travel with strong faith. Talk turns to an oddity that may be explained by the newness of the conference: what is billed as the World Religious Travel Association seems primarily focused on offerings for American Christians. For all the money spent by Muslims getting from Milwaukee to Mecca, there is little on view aimed at their needs and comforts.

A chat with Donna Rombough, marketing director of Craig Travel, Canada’s largest faith-based travel agency, yields another curious oversight. “There is a basic ongoing desire for Christians to visit and experience all areas of the Holy Land,” Rombough says. But no one is here promoting Canadian destinations such as Ontario’s Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons or British Columbia’s Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.

But beyond the shortcomings and oddities, there are glimpses of that unique combination of history and wonder that is faith-based travel at its best. Take, for example, a presentation on the Abraham Path. This Middle Eastern cultural route is a network of national and local walking trails that winds through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, past highlights such as the 2,000-year-old ruins at Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Jordan. More trails — through Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — are being considered. The trails are a physical embodiment of interfaith understanding between the three religions that share the Abrahamic tradition: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Even the presenting panel — Arie Sommer, Israel’s tourism commissioner; Senator Akel E. Biltaji, Jordan’s tourism ambassador; and Khaloud Daibes, Palestine’s tourism and antiquities minister — testifies to the path’s potential to bring greater harmony to a deeply troubled part of the world.

At breakfast in the hotel courtyard, I share a table with Daibes and Biltaji. Daibes’s daughter is back in Palestine, and she misses her: the sight of a youngster with long dark curls feeding the real alligators in the hotel’s faux swamp brings a tear to her eye. Biltaji, an erudite scholar and adviser to kings, sips an espresso and sympathizes with sacrifices made for peace and the beneficent balm of tourism. I ask Biltaji if he has a dream. He puts down his coffee and gazes beyond the cluttered café table: “This is not for me, but for her daughter, my grandchildren and, God willing, yours and those of Mr. Sommer. They should all explore the rocks at Petra together, marvelling at the beauty and our shared heritage.” 

Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.
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