Religious tour operators looking to overcome COVID-19 obstacles through a safe return to group tours and a hopeful recovery to the religious travel sector
The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic was, and continues to be, an unsettling time for many. It has forced people to cancel travel plans, put their lives on pause and go months without seeing loved ones. For believers, turning to faith has provided a sense of comfort. But for religious tour operators, a tumultuous travel season has left the industry in a rather uncomfortable position.
In March 2020, travelers excited to embark on long-awaited religious travel tours were met with devastating, but predictable news — their summer 2020 trips had all been canceled.
In the months following the government-mandated travel advisory, American-based religious tour operators were at somewhat of a standstill. With the international travel sector indefinitely on pause, trying to reschedule customers’ canceled trips and work with airliners, hotels and other destinations was a major cause of concern for faith-based travel companies. With cash flow, customer loyalty and the future of travel at stake, how is the religious travel market planning to bounce back? And how are operators mapping out a safe return for travelers within the group tourism industry?
Religious tour operators such as Globus Religious Pilgrimages are already looking to enter back into the travel market by offering tours as early as fall 2020. In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Globus initiated its Peace of Mind Travel Plan after suspending operations back in March. Guests who booked a tour between the dates of March 14 and September 30 are allowed to move travel dates through 2022, and were also given an additional bonus credit.
This type of approach has been common across a struggling travel industry, with most customers willing and able to reschedule their tours to another date. By offering flexible tour dates, zero cancellation fees and full refunds, the future of the religious travel sector is in good shape for a gradual recovery.
Reformation Tours is a Christian travel company founded by husband and wife team Rowena and Frank Drinkhouse. When coronavirus cases started to increase in late March, a level four travel advisory was implemented by most world governments, mere weeks before Reformation Tours’ 2020 season was set to begin.
“One of the main things we wanted to do was communicate with clients,” said Drinkhouse. “We made a COVID-19 response webpage very early on, and sent update emails about every two weeks. It’s really important for us to stay close to clients.”
Due to the rapid spread of the virus, Reformation and most other tour operators chose to postpone their scheduled trips prior to the travel ban. As of now, Reformation Tours is considering a Christmas tour in 2020, but the chances of group travel being a possibility this year are slim. According to Drinkhouse, the company plans to start touring again in March 2021. In the meantime, one of the biggest challenges on the road to recovery is ensuring cash flow.
“The nature of the business is that you collect funds and make forward payments,” said Drinkhouse. “There’s a large number of expenses, and we want to make operational costs as low as possible. Because of this, we had to decide whether we should go forward or not.”
Reformation Tours reimbursed guests’ cancelled trips with a mixture of both refunds and credit vouchers after cancelling the entire year of tours in March. According to Drinkhouse, it’s difficult for tour operators to get pricing for new tours because hotels are closed. Additionally, with social distancing measures in place, travel companies are unsure of how many people they can put on a bus while transporting visitors between locations.
Thankfully, faith has not been lost in the future of religious travel. Most, if not all of Reformation Tours’ customers have expressed their intent to follow through with rescheduling their original trips to a later date.
“We’ve had tremendous support from our travelers,” said Drinkhouse. “Almost every customer wants to travel again. We’ve been blessed by their support and prayers.”
It might be a long and difficult return to normalcy within the religious travel industry, but travelers should be optimistic for the future. Italy, a world-renowned destination for Christian travelers, re-opened most of their churches after a 2-month lockdown. In Singapore, Buddhist Temples and other religious institutions are allowed to operate at half capacity as the city enters phase two of reopening. Mosques have reopened in Saudi Arabia, Although Catholic Mass and other spiritual gatherings might look different (masks, limited capacity), a safe return to faith-based travel is in sight for those who remain hopeful.
By Amanda Landwehr