By Kirk Petersen

As pandemic restrictions show signs of easing, is it time to start thinking about scheduling that trip to the Holy Land, or a pilgrimage to Anglican cathedrals and abbeys?

Maybe — if you’re willing to make a leap of faith.

Wall of the Old City, Jerusalem | Arno Smit photo, Unsplash

To find out, TLC spoke with several companies that specialize in faith-based tourism. All of them said they are expecting a veritable explosion of business for 2022. “The real challenge is going to be that there is so much demand,” said Rowena Drinkhouse, co-owner of Reformation Tours. “Hotels are getting booked out.”

Three major events are helping to drive traffic for 2022.

  • A village in the German Alps has staged the Oberammergau Passion Play once a decade for nearly four centuries — in thanksgiving for surviving a 17th-century plague. The 2020 performances were postponed until 2022, when performances will be held from May 14 to October 2.
  • Queen Elizabeth — the Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, among other duties — will celebrate 70 years on the throne, with a four-day Platinum Jubilee in June 2022.
  • And then there’s the Lambeth Conference, the roughly decennial gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It also was postponed from 2020, and is now scheduled for July 27 to August 8, 2022.

Many companies are booking tours in the fall of 2021, and a few even in the late summer — but that’s where the leap of faith comes into play. You’d be putting a deposit on a tour that is not currently possible, because of travel restrictions. (Many countries have a mandatory 10-day quarantine for international travelers, which puts a real crimp in a nine-day tour.)

Celtic Cross at Iona | Nina Nicholson photo

But Educational Opportunities Tours, “the largest provider of Christian travel to the Holy Land, according to the Israel Ministry of Tourism,” expects Israel to open this summer, said Mark Yeh, marketing director of the Florida-based company. (Disclosure: EO is marketing a Living Church tour to the Holy Land in October.)

“Israel is the world leader in vaccinations,” said the Very Rev. Dominic Barrington, a transplanted Church of England priest who serves as dean of St. James Cathedral in Chicago. In between those duties, he’s the one-person U.S. branch of Lightline Pilgrimages of the United Kingdom, and has led almost 50 pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

Barrington said his tours put all their money in the hands of Christian communities in the Holy Land, which he considers both an ethical imperative and a good marketing gambit. He also does Anglican-heritage tours in the United Kingdom. (Disclosure: He’s in the early stages of planning a Living Church tour of the United Kingdom for 2023.)

The first thing to consider is whether you want to join a tour being marketed to the public, or create a custom tour for members of your church or diocese.

“I advise people that we need ideally more than a year” to plan a custom trip, said Jim Wallace, owner of Scotus Travel. He’s a retired minister in the Church of Scotland who has also served a Presbyterian congregation in the United States, and his one-person company arranges trips only in Scotland.

Iona Abbey, founded 14 centuries ago, is a major draw for Episcopalians and Anglicans in Scotland, and Wallace notes that the first presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Samuel Seabury, was consecrated in Aberdeen in 1784 by the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Eric H. Doss and his wife, Heather, are the owners of Progressive Pilgrimage. She’s a full-time Presbyterian pastor, which gave them an income to survive the pandemic. “2020 was going to be a huge year for us,” he said ruefully, but all their trips had to be canceled.

He recommends 18 months to organize a custom tour group, and pitches an interfaith tour experience, with three leaders on Holy Land tours: an Orthodox Jew, a Palestinian, and an Israeli Arab Christian woman. “To have one person be the voice of your experience in Israel does a disservice,” he said.

Donald Fishburne is a retired Episcopal priest who helps clergy and lay leaders plan pilgrimage groups, working with EO. He’s not planning anything earlier than 2022, “because I think that’s prudent. I think anyone who’s going to host a pilgrimage, or a faith-based trip, is naturally going to be more cautious than the general public.”

So what happens if you book a trip and have to cancel, either for personal reasons or because of the pandemic? Cancellation policies are all over the map, and are often adjusted in real time. A lot depends on whether the tour company has committed to hotels or airfare. “Many hotels are trying to be more flexible on refunding,” said Lilo Natinas, president and owner of Journeys Unlimited. She said airlines generally are not as flexible, and prices may be high because of demand.

Airlines are likely to insist on a vaccination certificate or a clean COVID test before flying in each direction. Yeh said tests can often be purchased at airports, or tour operators can make arrangements for a testing company to come to the hotel.

St. Mary Woolnoth, John Newton’s church | Diliff, Wikimedia

Several operators strongly recommended purchasing trip insurance, especially given the uncertainties of the pandemic. Edita Krunic of Select Travel said policies typically cover not just trip cancellation, but also medical expenses overseas, which Medicare won’t pay. “We’ve had to have people airlifted from foreign destinations to come home and get medical attention, and you’re looking at $75,000 or $80,000” without insurance, she said.

“People are saying, look, I’m spending $4,000 to go on a trip, I’ll spend another $400 to have peace of mind, and I’ll buy that travel protection,” she said.

Large travel companies often offer trip insurance as part of booking. Smaller companies don’t, but in either event there’s a very competitive market for trip insurance. Pay attention to what is and isn’t covered, and shop on coverage, not on cost.

Traveling with a church group can be a way for parishioners to spend quality time with their priest or minister, after a year of worship-by-Zoom. Booking through a Christian tour company will bring you closer to your Christian heritage.

“In London, you’ll not just see the Tower of London, but you’ll also see the church where John Newton pastored,” Drinkhouse said. Newton was an 18th-century slave trader turned Anglican priest turned abolitionist, and he also wrote hymns, including “Amazing Grace.”

“You can sing ‘Amazing Grace’ in that church,” she said.