Monks at Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): Clients can attend the Papal Audience at the Vatican with 206 Tours. // © 2017 iStock
Destination weddings, family cruises or ladies’ trips are just some of the reasons why a group of people will pack their bags and set out on a travel adventure. But no matter the impetus, both travel agents and clients agree that booking group travel can be a stressful process. However, agents who have had experience booking this type of travel also know that with careful and specific planning, they can help provide clients (and themselves) with a seamless experience before and during a trip.
“Travelers expect quality, and attention to travel details — including transportation, hotels, restaurants and expert local guides — is important,” said Jane Luzietti, owner and managing director of Religious Travel International, a tour company that specializes in arranging religious pilgrimages. “Good communication with travelers must be established to manage expectations.”
According to Luzietti, pilgrimage trips are seeing a lot growth for several reasons.
“Interest for faith-based travel exists across all ages,” she said. “Once faith-based travelers attend a pilgrimage, it is very likely that they will go again. And when they find a tour company they like, they often become a loyal client and repeat customer.”
Although Luzietti’s company focuses solely on Catholic pilgrimages, there are a variety of spiritual retreats and tours available for those with different religious backgrounds. Following are five tour companies that specialize in taking groups on a spiritual journey.
Walking in the footsteps of Buddha is the focus of the journeys that operator Buddhapath offers. While the company features cultural trips to places such as Peru and Brazil, most of its spiritual trips take place in India and Nepal. Each of the spiritual tours is led by a Buddhist practitioner, who tells stories of Buddha’s life and gives teachings at each of the sites visited.
“We aim to create an inner journey for the pilgrims even while they are taking an outer journey,” said Bina Aranha, vice president of Buddhapath. “What binds everyone together is that they are all traveling with a spiritual idea and want to gain insight and transformation.”
Among the company’s itineraries is the Peepal Pilgrimage in India, which is offered each year. The 14-day trip starts in New Delhi before continuing on to sites important to Buddha’s life, including Bodh Gaya, where he first attained enlightenment, and Kushinagar, where he died. Each tour day includes meditation; teachings; and visits to schools and villages to interact with local people.
Since 1985, Regina Tours has been one of the leading Catholic pilgrimage tour operators, offering both traditional and special trips to celebrate important events such as World Youth Day and Canonizations. Each group is accompanied by a priest or deacon for spiritual guidance and development, and every trip is customized to the group.
“The goal of our program is to educate our travelers by introducing them to new places, people, cultures and cuisines like they’ve never before experienced,” said Kallie Blount, a travel specialist for Group IST, parent company of Regina Tours.
A popular tour is an itinerary to Fatima, Portugal, where visitors explore the city where, according to Catholicism, Our Lady of Fatima (also known as the Blessed Virgin Mary) appeared to three shepherd children. After each day of sightseeing, the group participates in the rosary and a candlelight procession throughout the small town.
Whether clients simply want to vacation in Israel or are looking to get in touch with their Jewish roots, Tikva Tours covers all the bases. Each itinerary is guided by someone licensed by the Israeli government to conduct tours — a license given only after the guide passes a rigorous test. These experts are especially knowledgeable in Israel’s religion, history and politics, which certainly comes in handy when leading Tikva’s Jewish Heritage Tour.
“The focus of a first-time Jewish Heritage Tour is to introduce, in an intimate way, the history of Israel and the Jewish religion through 3,000 years,” said Adrienne Sasson, business development director for Tikva Tours. “I believe that spiritually, it is finding oneself through touching ancient stones from Jerusalem’s Kotel (Wailing Wall). It is as if you’re touching your ancestors.”
Along with a visit to the Wailing Wall, the itinerary also includes the chance to float in the Dead Sea and visit the Hamat Tiberias archaeological site and synagogue. Clients have the opportunity to celebrate Sabbath at a private Jewish home, where a traditional dinner will be served.
With tours in destinations from Canada to Bosnia and Herzegovina, 206 Tours aims to intertwine culture and history with Catholicism on each of its trips. Travelers are able to attend mass each day, and a priest or chaplain accompanies each group to be readily available for confession and spiritual guidance. But what truly makes the trip special for travelers is being able to stand in the sites that are considered important in the Catholic faith.
“Pilgrims love taking in the sites that they have seen and read about their whole life,” said Patrick McKenna, business manager for 206 Tours. “They are able to stand in those very sites and say, ‘Now I get it!’ It’s those experiences that one can’t pay for.”
One of the tour company’s most popular itineraries is Shrines of Italy, which includes both cultural and historical landmarks. Guests will visit the popular Trevi Fountain and attend the Papal Audience, where they can see Pope Francis and receive a blessing from him.