Agencies hunt for new destinations

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Travelink

TRAVELINK has specialised in group and individual travel to the Holy Land and other biblical destinations, through its Tours for Christians website, since 1983.

As 95 per cent of its tours have been based in the Holy Land, the company is now focusing on promoting tours to destinations that previously constituted a small part of its business: Turkey, Greece, Italy, Egypt, Jordan, and Poland.

For church leaders interested in exploring the possibility of a parish trip to Turkey, it is offering a church leaders’ “Seven Churches of Revelation in the Footsteps of St Paul” trip, 10-17 March, priced at £798 pp sharing a double/twin room (£199 single supplement), including half-board accommodation in four-star hotels, all transport (including flights from London Gatwick to Istanbul and a domestic flight from Izmir to Istanbul), and all entrance fees and tips.

“Hopefully, they will be persuaded to take their own groups to Turkey in subsequent years,” Travelink’s Josh Jones says. For church leaders who book a parish trip within 18 months (taking 20+ people), Travelink will refund the £798 payment.

The trip includes visits to the locations of the seven churches: Ephesus, Pergamum, Izmir (Smyrna), Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, as well as Istanbul (Blue Mosque; St Sophia Mosque; Topkapi Palace; Grand Bazaar); Troas (where St Paul saw a vision during his second missionary journey), and the volcanic hot springs of Pamukkale.

This year, Travelink is also promoting an all-inclusive cruise, “The Iconic Aegean”. The trip includes flights to Athens and two nights in the city (visiting the Parthenon and Mars Hill, where Paul preached) before the four-night cruise, stopping at Kusadasi (visiting Ephesus and Patmos); Rhodes; Crete, and Santorini, along the way. Weekly departures available from April to October. Group rate for church groups of 20+ people, from £1600 pp; individual bookings can be taken, priced at about £200-300 pp more.

istock Visit the Meteora monasteries, following Paul’s missionary journey in Greece, with Travelink

Also new this year is an eight-day pilgrimage to Poland, “Following John Paul II”, taking in Warsaw, Kraków, and a visit to Auschwitz. There is also a trip following Paul’s missionary journey in Greece (Athens; Mars Hill; Corinth, Delphi, Meteora monasteries; Thessalonica), price on request.

Travelink was meant to run a church leaders’ trip to the Holy Land this month, now postponed to 29 January-4 February 2025, for which there is still availability.

Most groups travelling to the Holy Land last year received refunds; a few chose to postpone. But tours leaving early this year are having to wait until the last minute for Foreign Office travel advice, owing to the ticket situation with the airlines (EasyJet takes full payment at the time of booking, while BA takes a large deposit to hold seats). “That means that we can’t refund until the flights are cancelled because their tickets are still in play.” Holidays with flights are ATOL-protected.

Contact: 020 8931 8811, or visit: toursforchristians.com/tours


JC Journeys

JC JOURNEYS has been arranging trips for Christian groups to pilgrimage sites and routes since 2016. It has been offering bespoke group and family trips to the Holy Land since 2018.

Holy Land trips amount to one third of the company’s business. “It’s like Covid all over again,” the director, Jane Roberts, says. “We were getting a little bit better known, and we had some big trips to the Holy Land booked. It’s not as if they would want to go to France, or Spain, or the rest of Europe: that’s where they want to go; so we’ll just have to wait another year.”

Whenever it is deemed safe to travel by the Foreign Office, Ms Roberts expects that, for some, the appetite for such a trip may have gone. She urges churches, however, not to forget fellow Christians. “If it is safe to go, there is an element of supporting the Christians in the Holy Land. We work closely with the charity Friends of the Holy Land . . . and life is tough for them.

“An important feature on trips to the Holy Land with JC Journeys are the opportunities to meet with other Christians. It’s not just a trip going from church to church to church, because that fades into the memory. It’s important to spend time meeting the clergy and the local Christians, and to chat with them about the challenges and the good parts in their Christian worlds.”

Ms Roberts is keen, when travel to the region is safe again, that parishes also consider spending time in Jordan, which, she says, should be viewed as part of the Holy Land.

“John the Baptist was baptising across the Jordan, meaning the east side of the River Jordan, and the actual site is there. That’s a beautiful place. And there’s Mount Nebo, where Moses looked over into the promised land, and where he died. There’s an amazing view from Nebo, where you can see Jericho in the distance, and the whole of the Dead Sea.”

istock Travellers can see the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul, on the “Seven Churches of Revelation in the Footsteps of St Paul” trip, with Travelink

In the capital, Amman, Ms Roberts recommends that groups consider a visit to the Our Lady Queen of Peace Centre, which helps children with mental and physical disabilities. “There are Christians and Muslims working together. . . It’s remarkable, the work that they do to help children walk again.” North of Amman, Jerash is also worth visiting, she says. “We’ve been to many Roman sites around Europe, but that’s the best-preserved Roman site that I’ve ever seen, because it was buried under the sand.” In Madaba, in the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, there is the oldest known mosaic map of Jerusalem, which dates from the sixth century.

In addition to the usual archaeological sights and desertscapes at Wadi Rum and Petra, JC Journeys can link groups with a church there that runs an “amazing” project for Iraqi refugees, she says.

While the Holy Land is closed to foreign airlines, alternative destinations with JC Journeys include the Greek island of Patmos (June to September), where John wrote Revelation, and the company’s “Cradle of Christianity” tour to four locations of the seven churches of Revelation, including the recently excavated ruins of Laodicea. “There’s a lot of amazing theatres to see, early mosaics, remains of churches, and Jewish synagogues,” she says. The company can also offer church-group trips following any of Paul’s journeys around Greece and Turkey.

All JC Journeys include sightseeing and relaxation time, communal dining, daily talks, and prayers. Accommodation is in family-run hotels and guesthouses, or convent and monastery stays. The company also offers a selection of walking holidays for individuals, and creative “Faith in Art” breaks for individuals or couples. Holidays with flights are ATOL protected.

Contact: 01886 812862; or visit: jcjourneys.com


Special Pilgrimages

SPECIAL PILGRIMAGES is a third-generation family-owned company, with its origins in Jerusalem, and an office still there today. It has more than 40 years’ experience of organising bespoke parish and diocesan trips to the Holy Land, as well as to popular pilgrim sites and shrines around the world.

The company supports Christian charities, particularly in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

For parishes whose Holy Land trips have been affected by the war, the managing director, Issa Tahhan, reports a 50-50 split on groups asking to be refunded or to postpone. “Some people have asked to go to just Jordan. But it’s very close proximity; so we advise them not to.”

For parishes open to alternative destinations, the company is promoting the Camino de Compostela, other European destinations, and opera tours to Germany and Hungary, for bespoke trips of 15+ people.

“Compostela is rooted in history as an alternative destination to the Holy Land, because, when the Muslims took the city [Jerusalem] in the 11th century, Christians were no longer allowed to go for pilgrimage. So they started going to Compostela and coming back with the St Jacques seashell.”

Special Pilgrimages is offering an eight-day Compostela trip, with pick-ups available for those who wish to walk only part of the ten-mile daily route. The eight-day/seven-night itinerary, for a half-board stay at four-star hotels, as well as some lunches, is priced at £1695 pp for groups of 15+. As all trips are bespoke, however, duration, activities, or star-rating of hotels can all be adapted.

Parish trips can be booked for any time in the year, but Compostela is best between May and October, Mr Tahhan says.

Other popular destinations for tours include Italy (Rome has designated a Jubilee Year for pilgrims in 2025), and Turkey (in the footsteps of Paul). In France, Special Pilgrimages organises parish trips to Lourdes, as well as other Christian destinations and monasteries. Trips to sites in Britain and Ireland include Knock, Iona, and Walsingham. Poland has become “quite expensive”, Mr Tahhan says, but the company can run trips provided that a group numbers at least 15.

“We have lots of experience in many destinations; so we can definitely help parishes find the destination suitable for them and their needs,” Mr Tahhan says. Bookings with flights are ATOL-protected.

Contact: 01702 394000, or visit: special-pilgrimages.co.uk


Lightline Pilgrimages

LIGHTLINE PILGRIMAGES has been running bespoke parish and diocesan tours of the Holy Land for 24 years, many of which are advertised on its website for others to join. Most of Lightline’s trips are led by Anglican or Roman Catholic clergy, and include a daily eucharist.

In recent years, owing to demand, Lightline has focused exclusively on Holy Land trips for UK church groups. Lightline is affected, as is every operator, by the airline policy on flight cancellations. The managing director, Rene Siva, says that they have refunded about 60 per cent of eligible trips; another 40 per cent are rebooking. “Of that 60 per cent, we are quite confident that probably 50 per cent will rebook. So, overall, I think about 75 per cent will rebook.

“The Holy Land is unique; so you can’t sell Rome, or something else. They’ve made up their mind: they want to go to Israel. In the past, we’ve tried to offer alternative destinations. Probably out of ten groups, you might get one that takes up a destination like Italy, Greece, or Turkey, for example. It’s one destination people want to do, and that’s it,” he says.

Lightline is guaranteeing the price on as many Holy Land rebookings as possible. “That’s in co-operation with hotels in Jerusalem, Gaza, and Galilee. . . The risk we’re taking is on the flights, but, if we book early enough, we hope we’ll get them at the same rate.”

Nevertheless, Lightline is putting together tours to offer churches that are open to travelling elsewhere. “We might do a one-off Greek tour in June. We’re just trying to get the accommodation lined up for two or three groups, for people who have got the time to go, and are already committed to going somewhere. We will offer them that. It will be a St Paul’s journey, and an interdenominational group.”

The company also has two Pilgrimage of Rome and Assisi trips available at the end of the year, open to all denominations (eight days; from £1995 pp).

For church groups looking to arrange trips for 2025, Lightline is currently working on tours focusing on Paul’s missionary journeys to Greece and Turkey.

“In Greece, the famous journey that we do we starts in Thessalonica, in the north, and you work your way down to Athens, finishing off at Mars Hill” (Paul’s second missionary journey).

“Alternatively, you can tag on Turkey. So, you start in Athens, head up north, then do Turkey — which I do recommend. We’ve done that with a couple of diocesan trips in the past; so we’re trying to reintroduce that.”

In Turkey, there are quite a few possible tours, Mr Siva says, including one along the western coast from Miletus (where Paul landed on his third missionary trip, and exchanged tearful goodbyes with the Ephesian elders before sailing on to Jerusalem). “And there are a few churches you can visit connected with the seven churches of Asia.”

Mr Siva is working on a sailing tour in the wake of Paul. The company ran diocesan and parish trips in the past, based on traditional Turkish gulets (two- or three-masted wooden vessels).

“In between your visits, you sail. It doesn’t matter how old people are, because they are not involved in controlling the yacht. You just sit down and enjoy yourself, and are looked after. We did that for ten years, and it worked out so well. So, we’re trying to find yachts at reasonable cost.”

istock Walking near Burgos, in Spain, on the French Way to Santiago. Lightline is offering parish walks on the French Way from spring next year

Lightline is also looking to reintroduce trips on the Compostela routes, the Portuguese Way, and the French Way. “I’m going to fly out and do part of it myself, before we market it. We’ll see how much walking is involved. In the past, we had a coach back-up all the way. It’s an expensive way of doing it, but it does give people the opportunity to walk part of it.”

Mr Siva estimates that trips walking the Portuguese Way will be available to church groups at the end of this year; bookings for the French Way from the spring of 2025 onwards.

Lightline has extensive experience arranging tours to other parts of the Middle East in the past, including Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria.

“The current situation is affecting travel elsewhere in the region, particularly Jordan. It does have its own traffic, but a lot of it comes across as an extension to Israel. A tour operator there said they are down by 35 per cent, because [people] are scared to be in the area.

“And Egypt — we’re going to give that another miss this year. From history, we know that when there’s trouble in Gaza, it also affects Cairo.”

Other destinations for bespoke group tours, however, include Portugal, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Malta, and Poland. Lightline is also open to discussing new itineraries with clergy or other tour leaders. All trips with flights are ATOL-protected.

Lightline supports Christian communities and companies in the Palestinian Territories and Israel, and a percentage of its profits supports Christian charities in Nablus, Bethlehem, and Gaza.

Contact: 0845 610 6447, or visit: lightline.org.uk


McCabe Pilgrimages

LAST October, McCabe Pilgrimages celebrated 40 years’ specialising in parish and diocesan trips to the Holy Land, and trips following Paul’s missionary journeys.

The company kicked off its celebrations with one of four anniversary trips, to Nepal, where its founder, Alistair McCabe, was born. Its second anniversary trip, to Jordan, runs next month.

“There was to be an anniversary trip to the Holy Land, but that will have to run when travel there can resume. We finish the anniversary year in October, with an ‘In the Wake of St Paul’ cruise around the Aegean,” the Revd Paul Ellerby, a McCabe director, says.

Concerning Holy Land trips that haven’t run: “We’ve been very fortunate every group scheduled, from October to early March, has been willing to postpone one year. Groups going from April we have asked to wait until this month to decide,” Mr Ellerby says.

“Certainly, we find ourselves explaining to customers who want to cancel their 2025 trip to the Holy Land that it is unreasonable to invoke the current travel advice for a trip that is many months away.”

McCabe is guaranteeing the price for postponed trips, except when airlines have levied a fee, which will then be passed on.

McCabe is requesting those cancelling trips to maintain their £20pp charity donation towards the McCabe Educational Trust, which supports schools and hospitals in the Holy Land. “With the help of our pilgrim travellers, the trust has raised £42,000 since the conflict began,” Mr Ellerby says.

As soon as Israel determines that it has restored security, and the Foreign Office changes its current travel advice, he says that a team will travel “to reconnect with our partners in the Holy Land, and to see what the situation is on the ground.

“But, in the main, the pilgrim routes that we take people on, they may encounter people who have been affected — because of family and friends and relatives — but they aren’t going to witness the scenes of a conflict zone.”

In the mean time, McCabe is happy to plan Holy Land trips with church groups “who want to look forward, with hope and anticipation, that, in 2025, travel will resume”, Mr Ellerby says. “But we’re not expecting lots of people to sign up until the situation is resolved.”

Instead, McCabe is promoting its Travel Club, launched in 2022 to offer destinations to individuals and small church groups wanting to expand their travel horizons.

In 2018, 95 per cent of McCabe trips were to the Holy Land. Projections for 2024 (pre-conflict) were 75 per cent. This year, McCabe is offering its biggest range of non-Holy Land trips ever, Mr Ellerby says. “This is not something we’ve done as a direct response to what happened in October, although we are looking at what more we can add.”

For those wanting to travel in 2024, the Travel Club is offering a choice of 19 destinations — six of them new for 2024. Travel Club trips are led by McCabe’s tour leaders, and are open to anyone to book.

“We’ve been doing the Camino for a couple of years, but this year we’ve just launched the Camino Portuguese, which is the last 100 kilometres of the route, from Portugal towards Santiago,” Mr Ellerby says.

The new Aegean cruise (departs 3 October; from £2999 pp) is being joined by the Songs of Praise presenter Pam Rhodes. Other new destinations are: Venice and Verona Carnivals (next month); the Path of St Barnabas and St Paul, in Cyprus, a combination of coach touring and walking (April).

There are also two new Travel Club trips in Italy: Ravenna, San Marino, and Assisi (April); and Pilgrim Ways and Classical Cities of Tuscany (September), combining a coach tour with pilgrim way walking, staying in five-star beach hotels.

Mr Ellerby says that church groups have also approached McCabe to facilitate their own parish pilgrimages and retreats to Travel Club destinations, and this is another possibility. McCabe allows pilgrimage leaders to promote trips to others on their website, to help to make trips viable. Every trip offered through the Travel Club is open to individuals. All holidays are ATOL- or AITO-protected.

Contact: 01252 226133, or visit: mccabe-travel.co.uk


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