A leap of faith

A leap of faith

Travel insurers constantly keep abreast of market trends, travel patterns, and ways to expand their offering. Here, David Craik explores the possibilities provided by the growing worldwide phenomenon of ‘faith tourism’

First published in ITIJ 99, April 2009

Travel insurers constantly keep abreast of market trends, travel patterns, and ways to expand their offering. Here, David Craik explores the possibilities provided by the growing worldwide phenomenon of ‘faith tourism’

Countries around the world are increasingly showing faith in faith to increase their tourism incomes. Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Egypt are amongst those stepping up the promotion of their countries, rich with biblical and religious sites, as destinations for faith tourists most notably from America, Russia and the former Soviet Union. Greece has also been active in this area since 2006 when it began promoting the wanderings of the apostle St Paul through its land. Its national tourism organisation said at the time that following this marketplace was ‘the way forward’.

The statistics support the promotions, and the optimism both past and present. According to the Travel Industry of America, one in four travellers would like a spiritual component to their holidays. The US Office of Travel & Tourism Industries, meanwhile, says that international travel from the US for religious purposes rose by 36 per cent to 905,000 trips between 2005 and 2006. This is compared to growth in overall outbound travel of only five per cent.

Kevin J. Wright, president of the World Religious Travel Association (WRTA), says the religious travel market is currently worth $18billion, with a total of 300 million travellers worldwide. “If you think of religious travel as a niche market of budget pilgrimages for seniors you are thirty years behind the curve,” he states. “The appeal spans the ages, with one third of each age group expressing interest in taking such a vacation. More than 50,000 churches and religious organisations host travel programmes. It is a global industry with religious travellers found in virtually every country of the world and it is experiencing substantial growth at present.”

Wright explains that religious trips include pilgrimages, missionary work, cruises, conventions, Christian camps, volunteer vacations, destinations and attractions. The majority of the market is driven by group travel although individual travel also remains a large component. The destinations are varied as well – Europe, the Middle East, Greece and South America are amongst the prime areas of travel.

According to the Travel Industry of America, one in four travellers would like a spiritual component to their holidays

Wright says the value and breadth of the market is attracting tour operators, tourist boards, hospitality companies and crucially travel insurers. “The opportunities for travel insurance companies in the religious market are plenty,” Wright says. “In fact, travel insurance within the religious market remains a relatively untapped market opportunity. For example, other non-travel related industries already offer insurance plans and policies designed for the religious market. We will increasingly see this trend develop into travel insurance plans as well.”

The seed of doubt

Wright believes that travel insurers will expand their presence in the market by tailoring their products and services to meet the travel needs of religious tourists. “It is about gearing the sales and marketing messages of their travel insurance plan toward the religious market,” he explains. “In other words, developing plans that appeal to and speak the language of the religious market. Insurance companies do not need to completely revamp their entire existing plans. Those that wish to further tap into this market will primarily be taking their existing plans and adapting them slightly. This will include their sales and marketing message to better meet the verbiage and receptiveness of the religious traveller.”

However, Wright does not fully explain what the specific travel needs of a religious tourist are and how they differ from a standard traveller. “It would be up to each individual insurance company to review, analyse and decide on this,” he says.

So what is the level of involvement of travel insurers in this market at present? And do they see it as a valuable opportunity? ITIJ talked to a selection of Christian tour companies in the UK and US to get their view. Generally, the advice they give to their customers is to organise their insurance separately and to take it out from a standard travel insurance provider; but they generally had not heard of specific or tailored faith travel insurance plans. Nevertheless, this could change in the future if those sales and marketing techniques are put into practice!

The consensus amongst the tour operators, however, was that there was little need for a specific faith tourism insurance plan. They see a religious holiday as being no different from any other trip, and that religious travellers are like any other traveller i.e. they are looking for the right level of cover for their travel needs at the most competitive price.

Perhaps reflecting this attitude, most insurers currently don’t seem to be doing much reviewing, analysing or deciding about whether to tailor plans to religious tourists; but are they missing out on a valuable opportunity? A spokesperson for insurer Europ Assistance says it has ‘not seen a huge amount of interest in covering this particular market’. She adds: “We do not currently offer specific policies for this type of travel but we are always happy to consider all options for our clients and have the flexibility to tailor policies to suit bespoke requirements.”

Stuart Bensusan, director of Essential Travel, commented: “This is not something I have ever heard of before.” But it is an area he agrees holds potential for travel insurers. Jim Grace, chief executive of Insure My Trip, isn’t so sure: “We have looked at faith but we haven’t gone there.” He added: “It is generally a tricky thing to target travel insurance to a particular sector. For something like golf insurance you clearly see the specific need, such as golf clubs and baggage. But with faith you have to dive under the cover to get the differences.”

However, one insurer has seen the potential of developing a specific plan for religious tourists. Last November, AIG Travel Guard entered the market by announcing the launch of a Faith Travel Plan. The company described it as a ‘novel approach’ to meet the needs of travellers embarking on mission trips, pilgrimages, volunteer vacations, conferences and retreats. It said that in addition to enhanced coverage options the Plan features specialised concierge services to help customers who may feel out of their element travelling to religious destinations around the world.

“The travel agency partners we work with who specialise in faith-based travel asked us to develop a programme specific to their clients’ needs,” said Travel Guard executive vice president Tom Zavadsky at the time of the launch. The plan features coverages including: trip cancellation up to $100,000 if overseas travel must be cancelled for reasons such as sickness of a religious pilgrimage travelling companion or the financial default of a mission tour operator; children aged 17 and under are covered at no additional charge – ideal for religious-oriented family travel; and medical coverage for insureds whether travelling in religious groups, individuals or families. It also offers a 24-hour hotline with ‘specialised concierge services giving religious travellers convenient access to worldwide religious destination information’.

Grace is unsure about AIG‘s coverage range and how it differs from a standard plan. He says: “If AIG are offering just an extension of concierge services then a consumer may get better coverage from a standard plan. Is there a true need for a specific faith travel plan? One difference may be the closed user group nature of the travel. But it is hard to tell.”

The opportunities for travel insurance companies in the religious market are plenty

Pari Morse of travel broker Columbine Consulting Services is also unimpressed by the specific nature of AIG’s plan. He says many of the travel insurance programmes he offers have covered similar areas to that in the Faith Travel Plan. He sees the plan as offering nothing new in travel insurance cover, but says it’s different in the sense that it is being marketed specifically to religious tourists. “We’ve insured children under 18 at no additional cost for several years. We marketed such cover for family travel and not-faith based travel. Coverage for cancellation due to illness or injury of a travel companion is also there,” he says. “I think this is more a case of educating travellers in general about the benefits of travel insurance rather than improving cover for one specific market.”

A promising future

But surely there must be some specific needs in this marketplace that differ from a standard plan given its size, range of traveller and the sometimes politically/socially unstable nature of some of the countries visited; for example, Palestine? Could enhanced cover to these countries be a difference to a standard travel plan?

Bensusan says: “It is difficult with countries where the Foreign Office says only essential travel is advised. There is the risk of something happening in these countries and the risk of claims. If we were to market the fact that we were covering travel to a no-go area for religious tourists we would be discriminating against our own clients if we turned them down for travel to the same area.”

In summary, the insurance response to religious tourism has been a fitful one so far, with insurers either assessing there is not a specific marketplace there or struggling to decide what their differing needs would be. But Ian Yeoman of the Victoria University Management School in Wellington, New Zealand and an authority on tourism, says the present economic downturn could help them clear their thoughts.

He easily identifies one area in this market that insurers should target. “The largest demographic in religious tourism are older travellers; therefore the opportunities are endless. They are more risk adverse and will not travel without comprehensive travel insurance,” he says. “As travellers become older they long for spirituality including religion. Health, religion and spirituality become blurred. The future of travel is about serious travellers who have specific reasons for travel, and pilgrimages are an example. These markets are more robust in a recession. During these times only two things are guaranteed: life and death – and both require a religious service.” Yeoman says insurers should contact religious tourist organisations and ‘explore cross-selling and partnerships’.

Bensusan, who prompted by ITIJ’s interest has begun to research the religious market, believes developing this level of contact with religious associations is the way forward: “There is a big opportunity here. It would be a very good market to expand into. We could tailor a product for religious associations. We could formulate a policy at a price that will justify the cover they are getting,” he says.

Last November, AIG Travel Guard entered the market by announcing the launch of a Faith Travel Plan

This would assist his company in discovering what the exact needs of the religious traveller are. “We would have to ensure that the terms and conditions were correct and that we knew exactly what they were going to do on their trip,” he says. “I assume as a group they wouldn’t be going white-water rafting but the concern is where they will be travelling to. But as a marketing tool we could market a policy to the religious groups.”

So think of the marketplace, talk to the marketplace, understand the nature and needs of religious tourists and at least have faith in the figures: $18 billion was the estimated value of the faith tourism industry in 2006, and this figure is growing.