According to the World Tourism Organisation, more than 300 million journeys are made to key religious sites annually, while the World Religious Travel Organisation states that with faith-based tourism is worth upwards of US$18bn every year.
Popular destinations such as Jerusalem, Lourdes and Mecca enjoy year-round business, largely because faith-led tours are less affected by economic change. Lourdes, a small town in the Pyrenees where it is said an apparition of the Virgin Mary ‘appeared’ in 1858, has been a major Catholic pilgrimage site for 150 years. It’s 15,000-strong population grows to more than seven million each year, which brings a steady flow of business to its 270 hotels – the second greatest number of hotels per square kilometre after Paris.
“Religious tours have a reputation for appealing to the older generation, but we’ve found our main audience is in the 25-35 bracket,” says André Graver from Tråvvú, a group tour operator which specialises in holidays for large church groups. “Our guests are encouraged to be open-minded in their approach to our religious tours. Yes, they want history and guided tours, but they also want to dance, take a boat trip or experience a traditional hammam,” explains Graver.
The Middle East is another key destination for faith tourists. According to the Jordan Tourist Board, nearly 30,000 travellers – from both Islamic and Christian backgrounds – visited Jordan last year specifically to visit the country’s religious sites, an increase of 7.9% on previous years. Jordan has 35 Islamic and 34 Christian religious sites and shrines, including the baptism site of Christ, the Shrines of the Prophets and the Dead Sea, the latter of which has an impressive hotel scene with a year-round trade.
Photo: Ben White, Unsplash
Across the Dead Sea to Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, hundreds of thousands of visitors from three major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – visit the city each year to pay homage to the Western (Wailing) Wall, the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount (Haram Al-Sharif). “We are very accustomed to welcoming different faith tourism groups from all over the world,” says Yehuda Kraus, Manager of Dan Jerusalem, a sprawling 505-room hotel which can cater for large, organised groups on the slopes of Mount Scopus.
However, Asia is the world’s biggest provider of faith tourism with China, India and much of Southeast Asia attracting millions of tourists to its numerous temples and religious sites. The latest region to benefit from investment is Yen Tu Mountain in Northern Vietnam, known as the ‘cradle of Zen Buddhism’. In the 13th century, King Tran Nhan Tong abdicated from the throne and retreated to Yen Tu to live as a Buddhist monk and founded Truc Lam, the first Vietnamese School of Zen Buddhism. Since then, Yen Tu attracts over two million Buddhist pilgrims each year. In summer 2018, it opened the new Yen Tu village, a recreation of a 13th-century monastery designed by Bill Bensley, the man behind some of Asia’s most luxurious hotels. His latest project includes a five-star hotel, Legacy Yen Tu MGallery by Sofitel, hostel accommodation and a vast prayer hall.
“It has been designed to look like a monastery lit by candlelight, a full immersion into the 13th century,” says Bensley, who spent five years on the project. “It was important to make it look as authentic as possible.” While the hotel caters for a more affluent market, more importantly, the new village and hostel accommodation doesn’t ostracise the two million pilgrims who descend on the mountain each year.
It’s important for hoteliers in destinations such as Yen Tu, Lourdes and Jerusalem to consider their clientele’s different needs, whether its specialist diets, group accommodation or accessibility. “One request we always make to hotels is for the room arrangement to have twin beds,” explains André Graver. “In our 25-35 age category, our people are either single or dating and do not want to share a bed with their partner. So if a hotel cannot provide enough twin rooms we simply cannot book with them.”
The key to attracting more faith-based groups is understanding and being able to adapt to the different religious needs, whether it’s offering single rooms, alcohol-free bars or kosher kitchens. Nail this, with real empathy, and hoteliers could reap increased business from this under-utilised market.
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- With 60% of the planet practicing a religion, more than 300 million faith tourism journeys are made to key sites annually and the industry is worth around US$18bn a year
- Destinations such as Jerusalem, Lourdes and Mecca enjoy year-round business, largely because faith tourism is less affected by economic change
- Younger guests are open-minded in their approach to religious tours, seeking everything from history and guided tours to active experiences and learning about local customs
- It’s important for a hotel to consider their faith-based clientele’s different needs, whether its specialist diets, group accommodation or accessibility