RELIGION and travel mix well, regardless of any worldly problems that may develop en route or at the destination. For one thing, though tour packages featuring shrines and other places considered sacred or historic by various creeds certainly have secular overtones, faith usually is an important factor. And for group members who share similar religious values, the combination of soul-searching and sightseeing can provide a moving and meaningful vacation experience.
Many faiths either sponsor or are involved in some way with this type of travel. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish--and other denominations, as well--have used tours to inspire, to educate, and, at times, to further international good will.
Often a significant anniversary becomes the focal point and catalyst for a series of trips. One example this year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Lutherans throughout the world are celebrating, and many escorted tours of Luther's homeland are being offered. The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod are sanctioning visits by young adults from any U.S. Lutheran church who want to visit sites associated with Luther's life (most of them are located in what is now communist East Germany).
On each of the four 12-day summer tours, which begin and end in West Germany, tour members will interact with young German adults at two church fellowship days. Each "Kirchentag visit is designed for personal contact, sensitive input and spiritual impact." One hope is to "create a more peaceful and spiritual life between nations."
Tour operator is Classic Travel, 1022 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis 55403, (800-328-7110). Land arrangements cost from $490 to $525 per person. Church contact is the American Lutheran Church, Division of Life and Mission, 422 S. 5th St., Minneapolis 55415, (612-330-3165). Travel agents also have listings of other Luther-oriented packages.
Anglicans are frequent visitors to English cathedrals, attend summer seminars, and may become guests of parishioners in an overseas program called "English Parish Holidays"--primarily as individual travelers. This year the Church of England will observe the 150th anniversary of the Oxford Movement, which began in 1833 and involved a period of revitalization and renewal. On July 16 at Oxford, there will be an outdoor celebration of the Eucharist by the Most Rev. Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Some tours with religious elements may invite reservations a year in advance because of the demand. A special example is the 350th anniversary next year of the famed Oberammergau Passion Play, which is performed once every 10 years in a small village in West Germany and always is sold out (see your agent for booking information).
"The Christian pilgrimage market is our fastest growing market," said David Schneider, El Al Israel Airlines general manager for North and Central America, with passengers coming from "almost every state."
Israel's Ministry of Tourism will sponsor a Convention for the Promotion of Christian Pilgrimages from May 31 to June 6, and is inviting religious leaders and tour operators. A major segment of that country's tourism business naturally results from its wealth of historic and religious sites. And although Jews continue to tour Israel and make their own deeply felt pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall, Christians have outnumbered Jewish visitors in recent years. (On a worldwide basis, Israeli tourism figures show approximately 60 percent Christians and 40 percent Jews, but those percentages are reversed for visitors from the United States.)
The Baptists--fundamentalists and evangelicals--generally travel in groups, Schneider said, noting also that the Catholic market is increasing. "The Catholics are beginning to go beyond Rome to the Holy Land in much greater numbers."
Certainly Catholic organizations long have been in the forefront of group travel to Rome, the Holy Land, and to various European shrines; tour operators provide packages which include one or more of those areas. Many parishes in the Washington area set up day tours to nearby shrines, and religious houses sometimes arrange international packages with agents.
Since this is a Catholic Holy Year--"The Year of Redemption," the Archdiocese of Washington has been planning a Holy Year Pilgrimage to Rome, which one official described as "penitential in nature and not a sightseeing tour." The dates are Sept. 24 through Oct. 2. For more details phone the Holy Year Office of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center, 853-3800.
The Catholic Travel Office, a non-church travel agency, at Suite 226, 4701 Willard Ave., Chevy Chase, Md. 20815, is a major Washington-area retailer of Catholic pilgrimages. CTO offers a number of tour packages, including a 12-day pilgrimage to Jordan, the Holy Land and Greece, sponsored by the Sodality Union Archdiocese of Washington, Sept. 16-27, for the all-inclusive rate of $1,298.
CRUISING DOWN THE RIVER: The 65-foot Virginia Patriot resumed its popular James River Cruises on April 1 and will continue making a variety of trips on the Richmond waterway through Nov. 9. They were initiated last year by Richmond-on-the-James, "a nonprofit civic organization devoted to heritage tourism."
A 4-hour trip to the Shirley Plantation area operates daily from 1 to 5 p.m. and costs $12 per person. A 2 1/2-hour cruise to the Varina Plantation area runs from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays only, for $8 per person. (Shirley is about 25 miles southeast of Richmond, Varina is about 10 miles closer; both are located off Rte. 5.) Twilight Cruises, also $8, operate from 6 to 8:30 each Sunday evening from May 8 through Oct. 23. There is no charge for infants younger than 2 years, and children up to 12 ride for half price.
Since docking facilities do not permit disembarking, these trips are strictly cruises, with a historic narrative commenting on points of interest along the waterway during the day. Private charters also are available.
On Sunday, Nov. 6, the Virginia Patriot will cast off at 9:30 a.m. to help celebrate the Annual First Thanksgiving Festival at Berkeley Plantation. Passengers will attend a Virginia Harvest Luncheon on board, then disembark for a Thanksgiving reenactment and tour the homes on the plantation. All cruises embark from the Richmond Intermediate Terminal, five minutes east of Shockoe Slip on Dock Street.
Further information, Richmond-on-the-James (804-780-0107), or write to James River Cruises, c/o Richmond-on-the-James, 104 Shockoe Slip, Richmond, Va. 23219.
SPRING IN NEW ORLEANS: Scent of jasmine and magnolia mingling with aromas of beignets and creole coffee; sounds of trombones in the French Quarter and steamboats on the Mississippi. It's time for the 47th Annual New Orleans Spring Fiesta running now through April 26.
Sponsored by the Spring Fiesta Association, a nonprofit cultural organization, the varied program in ludes plantation tours and Vieux Carre home tours. If you're going to be in New Orleans in time, contact the association's ticket office at 529 St. Ann St., at Jackson Square (504-581-1367) for more information.