For Mary-Rose Fisher, 51, an avid scrapbooker from Austin, Texas, the original appeal of the three-day Girl's Get-A-Way cruise, promoted as a tour for Christians who want to be "the women God wanted them to be," was the chance to create a spiritual memory book. "The scrapbooking session was described as commemorating the important events of your spiritual life, with all necessary art supplies provided," says the IBM software architect and devoted Protestant. But as it turned out, Fisher never once set foot in that workshop. She ended up by the pool with her daughter Christy, 27, where both enjoyed meeting other women--Episcopalians, Catholics, Methodists --whose similar values made for easy friendships.
Mother and daughter also enjoyed Bible study in the mornings, and Christian comedians (clean jokes only) and singers at night. In fact, Fisher had such a great time last November that she has already persuaded many of her girlfriends from church to sign up for a similar cruise this November. "My friends keep asking for our itinerary," she says, "but I tell them it's just so much fun being together--sunning in the afternoon and listening to Christian entertainment at night--that it doesn't matter what ports we stop at."
Religion and travel are hardly new partners, but Fisher is part of a growing group of tourists seeking to enrich their spiritual lives while enjoying a big dose of good old, secular fun, whether in the Holy Land, on a Christian cruise or touring the missions of California--wine-tasting reception included. "Religious tourism accounts for one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism market," says Kevin Wright, religious-travel manager at Globus, an international tour company that offers 20 faith-based itineraries, up from eight in 2004. "We're talking about a $1 billion industry."
Why the explosion of religious-oriented travel? Three factors, says Wright, who is the author of three travel guides for the faithful. The first, he says, is simple demographics: "In the last census, there were 8 million more people identified as Christians than a decade ago." Second, is the broader boom in international travel. According to Wright, 45% more Americans are traveling overseas today than 10 years ago. Third, says Wright, "people of faith increasingly want a personal experience of their faith."
And that may be why yesteryear's dry lectures in a dusty church don't quite cut it with this generation of travelers. "Boomers don't want to be told about faith, they want to experience it for themselves," says Cindi Brodhecker of MTS Travel in Ephrata, Pa., which focuses on the religious and nonprofit market. "They want to explore where their ancestors might have worshipped. Or better understand their religious background." And, like Fisher, they often want to take the family, making it a multigenerational experience. "Today faith-based travel is no longer targeted to a niche market--church groups who want to go on a mission or pilgrimage," says Brodhecker. "It's for the mainstream customer who wants an exciting vacation that also makes the Bible come alive."