26 April 2024

Why Holy Land tour operators are exploring faith from a different angle

Tours of Ephesus in Turkiye.
Faith tour operators are exploring options such as Turkiye. Picture: iStock

Jenan Taylor

19 February 2024

Faith tour operators are exploring alternative destinations and itineraries as the Israel-Gaza crisis continues to keep the Holy Land out of reach for pilgrims.

Australian-based operators are offering experiences that allow people to learn about belief traditions outside the Holy Land, including tours to Indigenous Christian communities, that feed people’s faith.

It comes as the Australian government’s official travel advisory warned against travel to Gaza, and asked people to reconsider their need to travel to Israel.

The Council of Australian Tour Operators said many businesses had suspended tours to Israel, the prevalent destination for Christian pilgrims, despite still reeling from pandemic shut downs.  

Faith-based agencies Selah Australia and Harvest Journeys said they wouldn’t provide tours to Israel and Palestine as long the war continued.

Selah Australia founder and managing director Lisa Tarzia said the organisation’s focus was on Biblical discipleship, which would be hard to achieve during an active war.

Read more: Melbourne pilgrims to walk, pray for peace in Gaza as Lent begins

She said Selah Australia lost 90 per cent of its business because of the crisis, and refunded customers more than $700,000.

A surge in holy travel after the COVID pandemic made the overnight decision to stop tours to Israel and Palestine even more traumatic, Ms Tarzia said.

But she said she believed in giving people holiday opportunities where their faith could be fuelled and fed. That was a major reason the agency was focussing on diversifying its offerings.

Ms Tarzia said it had always run other Biblical itineraries, including journeys that followed in the footsteps of St Paul in Greece and Türkiye, and was now preparing to do them in different ways.

She said the agency was considering tours that looked at the heroic and not-so-heroic figures of Christian history in the region, and was considering tours to places such as Armenia and Ethiopia.

Harvest Journeys chief executive officer Selina Hasham said cancelling Holy Land tours was a massive blow for the agency, and for the industry in Israel and Palestine, particularly after the post-COVID sacred travel surge.

Read more: Indigenous spirituality gathering aims to help Christians echo truth and love

Run in an immersive style, which included having people sail Galilee in a traditional vessel as they listened to Scripture, they strengthened many travellers’ understanding of the gospel readings.

She said Harvest Journeys was now applying those immersion tours to itineraries in Türkiye, and holy sites in parts of Europe, England and Ireland.

Ms Hasham said the experience of trying to upkeep an international pilgrimage travel organisation during COVID led it to look for emerging opportunities within Australia, such as giving travellers a chance to learn about Indigenous Christianity.

Melbourne diocese Bishop Dr Lindsay Urwin said he was preparing to lead tours that were focussed on how faith itself worked, on behalf of an operator.

Dr Urwin said it was important for people to explore the origins of belief and see that there was holy land beyond the region now in crisis.

Read more: Sacred walks are booming. Could they help churches reach more people?

He said the tours would trace faith from long before Christianity in southern Türkiye, and areas around the Silk Road, and the effects of history and geography on it.

“It will look at the Abrahamic religions and the notion of Abraham as the father. It seems to be so important at this moment in particular, and provides an opportunity to look at faith from a different angle,” Dr Urwin said.

“And it will give people an opportunity to travel up to a part of the world, which actually is not as usual as the Holy Land.”

To speak further with Bishop Urwin about his upcoming tour, email lindsayurwin1@gmail.com.

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