Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Faith Tourism takes center stage of global travel industry

Inaugural World Religious Travel Expo Brings Several “Firsts,” including Unprecedented Panel
of Tourism Officials from Palestine, Israel, Jordan & Egypt that Signals Greater Holy Land Tourism Co-Op

LITTLETON, Colorado (Nov. 4, 2008) – The inaugural World Religious Travel Expo and Educational Conference concluded Saturday after a week of “firsts” – the tourism minister of Palestine made her first foray into a North American trade show, marketing holy sites such as Bethlehem and Nazareth; participants from 30 countries on six continents gathered for the first large-scale gathering to promote and develop the $18 billion worldwide faith tourism industry; and WRTA announced that its second annual expo would be held next November in conjunction with the 2009 National Tour Association (NTA) annual convention.

“Faith tourism is no longer a niche, but a full-blown industry,” said Kevin J. Wright, president of the World Religious Travel Association (WRTA), host of the event. “The tremendous response from global tourism leaders and organizations to our first trade show and conference clearly demonstrates that our partners around the world are committed to developing and promoting meaningful products and services that meet the needs of today’s faith-based travelers.”

Destinations, tour operators, cruise lines, attractions, hotel properties, travel suppliers and a host of other providers and planners from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, the Caribbean, Europe and the Holy Land were represented at this assembly of global leaders in the religious travel industry. Keynote speakers included the Honorable Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, Minister of Tourism and Aviation, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism; the Honorable Akel E. Biltaji, Jordan’s Ambassador-at-Large for Tourism and Special Advisor to His Majesty King Abdullah II; Maurice Zarmati, President, Costa Cruise Lines; and Steve Born, Vice-President, Globus Family of Brands. Other dignitaries and special guests included Dr. Khouloud Daibes, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Palestine; David Pereira Catarino, Mayor of Ourém (Fatima), Portugal; and Arie Sommer, Tourism Commissioner for North and South America, Israel Ministry of Tourism (IMOT).

According to Daibes, the Palestinian tourism minister, the WRTA Expo marked her “first step in positioning Palestine as part of the Holy Land.” ACA Travel and Tourism, a private Bethlehem-based faith travel company that operates tours in Jordan, Israel and Palestine, had a booth at the WRTA Expo, a first American trade presence for any private tourism enterprise from Bethlehem.

During a panel Friday moderated by Malia Asfour, director of the Jordan Tourism Board of North America, Palestine’s Daibes and Israel’s Sommer explained that the Holy Land has welcomed travelers for more than two thousand years and hospitality lies at the core of the region’s heritage. Both officials also stated that 2008 is serving as one of the best years ever on record for visitors to the Holy Land. Asfour, who has promoted Jordan to North Americans since 1998, called the panel groundbreaking because it marked the first time that officials from all areas of the Holy Land – Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt – have come together to promote the region to the North American travel industry. Asfour congratulated Wright for doing what no travel official had done before – and commented that the WRTA Expo could mark the beginning of a new era of cooperation and promotion of the Holy Land to travelers from North America.

Other highlights of the WRTA Expo:
• Vanderpool-Wallace, tourism minister of the Bahamas, reminded participants that his country was founded by people seeking religious tolerance and freedom, so it is only natural that faith-based travelers would be attracted to the people and culture of the Bahamas. The Caribbean nation, a popular destination for faith-based cruises and conferences, has the only tourism ministry in the world with a full-time religious travel department in North America, headed by deputy director Linville Johnson.
• Biltaji, often described as the godfather of Jordanian tourism, shared an update on the Abraham Path Initiative, a route of tourism that retraces the journey made by Abraham (Ibrahim) through the heart of the Middle East some four thousand years ago. Biltaji, a board member of the International Institute for Peace through Tourism (IIPT), told the Expo audience that a walking segment of the Jordanian portion of the path (near the ancient birthplace of the prophet Elijah) is complete. A film on the project can be viewed at http://www.abrahampath.org/video_friend.php. The network of trails is scheduled to open slowly over the next several years. Biltaji explained that such an undertaking needs the support of the entire global faith tourism industry. He emphasized the benefits of the path -- sustainable tourism, inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding. (Three and a half billion people — over half the human family — trace their history or faith back to Abraham, considered the father of monotheism. The Abraham Path honors this shared cultural heritage by linking together into a single itinerary of outstanding interest and beauty of the ancient sites associated with Abraham and his family.)
• The Mexico Tourism Board, which estimates that religious travel will account for twenty percent of its 2008 foreign arrivals, presented a lively display of Mexican culture, history and religious products, including the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, its most visited Catholic sanctuary, which drew more than 14 million visitors in 2006.

Expo participants had access to workshops and presentations on the entire spectrum of faith-based tourism, which today is more than just pilgrimages – it attracts travelers on cruises, volunteer vacations, adventure trips (even African safaris), leisure vacations, conferences and events, such as the World Youth Day, one of the largest gatherings of any kind. The exhibitors and products at the WRTA Expo showed the diversity of the faith tourism industry. Alongside overtly religious travel suppliers such as the tourism ministries of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel, were those with a less obvious connection, such as:
• EcoAndes Travel, Ecuador (Adventure tours in South America)
• Nissi Holidays, Uganda; Cordial Tours and Travel Services, Tanzania (Africa safari operators)
• Mexico, Romania, Korea, Jamaica, Bermuda and Bahamas tourism ministries
• Condor Verde Travel (Mexico and Venezuela)

More than 500 participants attended the historic event, held Oct. 29-Nov. 1 at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Orlando. Expo delegates said they were impressed with the professionalism of the event, the quality of exhibitors and attendees, and the business opportunities the event fostered:
• “It was truly a first class event- from your pick of convention centers, to the amazing food, to the wonderful panel discussions and break-out sessions and everything else that went into the 3-day Expo. The expo proved to be very enlightening for me, learning so much about faith based travel, and the travel industry in and of itself. I met a great group of people who shared some valuable information with me. It was also a success from a business point of view since I believe I generated a lot of excitement about my hiking tours to Israel.” – Judy Mizrachi, President, Women Walkers
• “I just returned from the World Religious Travel Expo and Educational Conference in Orlando, organized by Mr. Kevin J. Wright and his wonderful team. As an exhibitor I was most impressed with the exceptional services provided to everyone attending, the attention to detail, how true the show was to its faith-based focus etc. This list could go on forever. I highly recommend the World Religious Travel Association; I am surely looking forward to continuing our cooperation.” – Sandra Weinacht, CEO, Incantato Tours & Concert Management
• “Thank you so much for putting together a great conference for everyone in the faith-based travel industry! I had a great time, made many contacts and learned a lot in the seminars! I truly appreciate all the work that you put into the event. I especially appreciate the matchmaking list. It will allow me to follow up with new contacts and friends much more easily now that the conference is over.” - Tracie R. Heidt, Executive Director, Stellaris Christian Study Abroad
• “The Expo and conference was a wonderful way to introduce everyone to the power of the Faith Tourism market.” – Bill Lawrence, Director, Supplier Strategies, CCRA International, Inc.

Next year’s Expo will be held in Reno, Nevada in conjunction with the annual convention of the National Tour Association (NTA). Currently, 35 percent of NTA operators offer religious tour products, and NTA and WRTA seek to expand the overall growth of faith tourism by bringing both memberships opportunities for education and professional development.

The WRTA Expo is the brainchild of Wright, an award-winning author of several religious travel guidebooks who founded WRTA in January, 2007. His latest book, “The Christian Travel Planner,” (released 2008 by Thomas Nelson) is the most comprehensive guidebook ever published on faith-based travel. An updated version of his popular “Europe’s Monastery & Convent Guesthouses” was released Nov. 1 by Liguori Publications.

The WRTA Expo was the official kick-off of “The Year of Faith Tourism.” Serving as a special time set aside for the promotion of and participation in travel by people of faith, the purpose and goals of the yearlong celebrations and activities are: (1) Highlight the New Era of Faith Tourism. (2) Increase the awareness of the personal and communal benefits of Faith Tourism. (3) Contribute to the overall growth and health of the global economy, travel industry, and individual travel providers.

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