Religious tourism offers journeys of faith

Pilgrimages: People of all faiths discover a spiritual satisfaction in visiting holy places, and the numbers are growing.

Destination: Holy Lands

April 04, 1999|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Special to the Sun

In a fragrant grove atop Israel's Mount of the Beatitudes, 50 men and women wearing identical yellow sun hats and name tags labeled "Hello, my name is ..." prayed to the powder-blue heavens about brotherly love and eternal salvation. The rapture on their faces as they chanted "Blessed are the meek ... Blessed are the peacemakers ..." at simple stone benches framed by a blaze of bougainvillea spoke of faith renewed and dreams fulfilled.

"This is the most joyful day of my life," a congregant said after the service, which was part of a two-week Holy Land church-group trip arranged with the help of the Israel Government Tourist Office. "To think I am standing where Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount, saying his words in this sacred place, is really a fantasy come true."

That dream of spiritual pilgrimage is one travelers are fulfilling in rapidly increasing numbers, making religious tourism a $1 billion- a-year business worldwide and creating a boom for tour companies specializing in religious themes. During 2000, which Pope John Paul II has declared a Great Jubilee year, with indulgences granted Catholics who journey to major holy shrines, as many as 30 million pilgrims are expected to visit Rome and a record 4 million -- including the pope -- to visit Israel, where the government reports strong bookings despite tensions in the Middle East.

"So many people are looking for something more deeply meaningful than a go-there, see-that travel experience," said Heidi Watson, director of Give Thanks and Remember, a North Carolina-based Christian-tour operator. "Other people come back with check-offs on an itinerary; we come back with changed lives. Our memories aren't just of a tour to famous places, but of a journey with God."

Tours for all faiths

While the most of the publicity focuses on perennial pilgrimage sites such as Rome, Lourdes, Fatima and Israel, these are by no means the only destinations attracting religious tour groups.

U.S. travel companies offer Jewish, Christian, interfaith and even some Buddhist spiritual journeys to destinations around the world. Trips range from deeply religious programs with prayer services conducted by accompanying clergymen, to cultural heritage journeys that bring spiritual connection through historical documentation rather than religious rituals.

In Turkey, Innovations in Travel, a California-based outfitter, introduces Jewish groups to the enduring legacies of Sephardic Jews who were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire after their 1492 expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition. Participants visit ancient synagogues and cemeteries and meet with Jewish community members in Istanbul, where about half of Turkey's 24,000 Jews reside.

Christian groups who join Give Thanks and Remember's Turkey trip worship at key Biblical sites with an accompanying priest and/or minister (depending on the makeup of the group). Participants explore the Seven Churches of the Revelation of St. John and the lunar landscape of Cappadocia, where early Christians carved out churches in the peaked soft-tufa rock formations and hid from invading Arab armies in massive underground cities.

The American Jewish Congress travel program runs dozens of tours tracing Jewish roots in Eastern and central Europe, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, France, Great Britain, Scandinavia, China, Australia, New Zealand, South America and East Africa. Led by cultural historians, participants visit what remain of synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish sites and meet with community leaders struggling to keep Jewish traditions alive in tiny enclaves threatened by assimilation, emigration or oppression. The company also runs 16 heritage tours for Jewish singles, ages 29-49.

Unique World Travel, a New York company, mixes religion and cruising on some 17 riverboat trips through Europe, Russia and the Baltic states. Among the most popular programs is a one-week cruise for Catholics from Rome to Avignon, France, along the Mediterranean coast and up the Rhone River aboard the 146- passenger M.S. Cezanne II. A priest -- who works with the travel company to put together the group and itinerary -- conducts Masses in Rome and Avignon, and provides insights into other key religious sites along the route.

A Jewish heritage cruise from Berlin to Prague journeys along the Elbe River aboard the 62-passenger M.S. Konigstein, tracing Jewish contributions and suffering in eastern Germany and what is now the Czech Republic.

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