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The skyline of the Old City at the Western Wall and Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Travel companies are reporting an upsurge in interest in pilgrimages. Photo courtesy of QS Travel and Tours Inc.

Buzz building for autumn pilgrimages

  • June 26, 2021

Canada’s Catholic pilgrimage industry is poised to make a comeback this autumn as long as the COVID-19 metrics keep trending in the right direction.

International Heritage Tours and QS Travel & Tours Inc. are a couple of the enterprises with Catholic tours earmarked for the third quarter of the year. It’s been a tough past 16 months for both tour agencies, and for the industry as a whole. Pandemic restrictions had brought the travel industry to a standstill as borders closed around the world to combat COVID-19.

But there is a light beginning to shine. Representatives from both Ontario-based organizations report that registration momentum has picked up substantially in recent weeks as there is a growing confidence the nation is finally getting ahead of the pandemic as vaccines roll out.

“People really want to go and have a renewed spiritual experience,” said Halina Jablonski, the director of Catholic tours at International Heritage Tours for the past 11 years. “A few months ago, we had zero registrations, but people are starting to sign up and book the last two weeks.”

QS Travel and Tours travel consultant Steven Skoczek says his company also experienced “a period of quiet” when the pandemic was at its peak during the early months of 2021, but now fortunes appear to be changing.

“Restrictions are easing and I genuinely get a sense that people are eager to reconnect with their faith and one of the ways to do so is going on a pilgrimage,” said Skoczek. “In particular, people supposed to travel with us in 2020 are starting to reach out to us.”

International Heritage Tours is devising a bigger comeback in 2021 as 14 separate tours are scheduled between Sept. 15 and Nov. 14, including seven journeys to the Holy Land.

International Heritage Tours also has trips scheduled that will jet pilgrims to religious landmarks in Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain, among others. The company is opening the door for western and eastern Canadians to access these adventures by arranging departures in Alberta and Ontario respectively.

Jablonski is confident these tours will be successful for multiple reasons.

“Right now, things are moving really fast because right now you don’t have to have a vaccine passport — you only need to have a negative test,” Jablonski said. “All these hotels and bus companies have taken extra precautions to make sure people are in a clean, well-maintained environment. And all these hotels are great hotels that we have been working with for many years.”

QS Travel and Tours has organized a more modest schedule as its first pilgrimage with confirmed dates — a two-week adventure to Egypt, Jordan and the Holy Land — is not poised to commence until Remembrance Day in November. A tour in Mexico to celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe from Dec. 10-13 is also on the books.

The company could get into the Canadian game sooner if inter-provincial travel conditions become sufficiently less stringent between Ontario and Quebec as this opens the door to executing a bus tour to the shrines of Quebec. Travel between the two provinces has just recently re-opened.

Skoczek himself is looking forward to being among the pilgrims venturing to the Holy Land. He was registered for a group scheduled to leave on March 24, 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic snuffed out that possibility. He’s heard amazing testimonials about ventures to the Holy Land.

“People I’ve spoken with say being in those places really brings the Bible to life. You get a chance to be baptized in the Jordan River and see all the various places Catholics hold dear.”

The travel consultant adds that he’ll constantly monitor the travel conditions laid out by the Government of Canada and foreign entities like the Israeli Ministry of Tourism in the weeks ahead.

Due to the pandemic, the entire slate of Oberammergau Passion Plays scheduled to occur in 2020 will be performed in 2022. This play depicting the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross has been performed every 10 years since 1634 by the inhabitants of Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany. The villagers vowed to perform the play each decade if God spared them of continued bubonic plague devastation.

International Heritage Tours and QS Travel and Tours are offering a combined total of 25 opportunities to see Oberammergau Passion Play.

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