Imagine that you love to tour, and countries across the sea intrigue you. Now say that you are an observant Jew who is careful to pray three times a day, immerse in a mikvah and eat kosher food - what would you do? One option is to pack your suitcase with a lot of canned goods and hope to meet a prayer quorum on the way.
Another option is to have someone else do all the work for you. While there are dozens of tour companies that offer the world to the secular among us, the religious population makes do with a lot less. The relatively small market (12-15 percent of all tourists) and the complicated logistics have not enticed the larger tour companies to join the fray.
Two large companies have taken up the challenge. One is the established Gesher company, whose managers claim were the first (35 years ago) to offer kosher organized tours, and today conduct around 100 tours for around 3,000 people a year. The second is Natour Masoret which was established by the Natour company in the eighties and today conducts 70-80 trips, in which 2,500-3,000 people travel a year.
"A religious person who does not want to give up traveling the world will run into a few problems”, says Yossi Glick, marketing manager of Gesher Tours, “On the one hand he wants to be like everyone else and not miss out on anything, yet on the other hand the trip will demand certain conditions that he has to fulfill. This is the reason for the rise in demand for organized tours that travel all over the world, just like the secular tours, without compromising the religious way of life”.
How does a religious way of life express itself on these tours?
“Our tours begin with the recitation of the traveler’s prayer and the groups pray three times a day. On the bus, the guide takes the microphone and shares a bit of torah, or sometimes asks one of the tourists to speak.
“The food is kosher, but not always mehadrin, and is under the supervision of the local rabbinate. On some of the tours, we take food from Israel and pack it in a way that it can be warmed up in a gentile’s oven. Sometimes the food arrives by plane and is distributed by a local agent. Obviously we take advantage of any local kosher restaurants. In places such as the Far East ,we use local food, mostly fruits and vegetables and supplement it with food from Israel.
“We try to include cities that have a Jewish community so that there is a mikvah. When there is not one available, we improvise - as you know oceans and lakes have the purest water. On weekends we stay in central hotels that are within walking distance of a synagogue. During Shabbat, there are walking tours.
Who is your typical religious tourist?
“Our tourists come from all streams of Judaism, five percent are secular people who keep kosher and the rest are kippah wearers. During the past three years, some ultra-orthodox Jews have joined our tours, but they are the type who would not oppose traveling on mixed buses or women who wear pants. They do not dictate the trip, they just enjoy it. There have not been too many of them.”
Have there been difficulties due to the different types of people and approaches?
“Not at all. On our tours there are Ashkenazim and Sephardim praying together, everyone according to his method and without any problems. A joint trip is like the army - it is a melting pot. Every religious person knows of the arguments in their synagogue on Shabbat. On our tours even this does not happen. People come to enjoy and tour while keeping the commandments”.
Are there places that you will not visit on your tours?
“Only churches which are forbidden to enter. But there is no reason not to stop next to a church and discuss its architecture and history”.
“It is not forbidden to enter a mosque and we have no problems with it”.
Is an observant tour more expensive or cheaper than a regular tour?
“It is more expensive, but only by a slight percent. The tourists pay more for the logistics involved in obtaining kosher food. The hotels where they stay on Shabbat are centrally located and are usually more expensive”.
The most popular trips are European vacation packages and family trips to America.
As with secular tourists, the religious trips are dictated by seasonal trends, one of which is the package tour.
“We take over a 4-5 star hotel in Switzerland or Italy for the entire summer”, explains Motti Dayan, manager of Natour Masoret. “We make the entire place kosher and set up a synagogue. The food in the hotel is glatt kosher, which enables the ultra-orthodox (who make up 15 percent of the vacationers) to come. This necessitates a centrally located hotel which allows for day trips”.
The prices of package tours are high, yet they are very popular among the religious population. Another destination that has become popular in recent years is the United States. Mostly, these are family trips that last around two weeks and whose price has come down due to the dollar exchange. These trips include the west coast and the large amusement parks.
The Gesher Company reports that there have been requests for organized tours to Iceland, and Natour offers African Memories which includes a safari and additional attractions. Natour’s travelers have been interested in tours to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and also Brazil and Argentina (without going to the immodest carnivals), while Gesher’s tourists prefer the inexpensive Romania and also Spain, Italy and Portugal, where one can find quite a few Jewish roots.
Another trend that is developing at Gesher is a roots tour to Poland. A three generational family drives around with a driver and a local tour guide to visit the places from which they have come.
What don’t they have? Extreme tours and skiing are two examples.
The Jewish sector does not request extreme tours. “Extreme tours are for young people”, explains Dayan, “who only want to take a knapsack and go off and breathe on their own. They will keep kosher and will spend Shabbat at Chabad houses around the world, but they will not go out in organized groups. The organized tour is mostly for families and older people.”
The Gesher Company stated that there are jeep tours in Romania offered to young people, but agreed that it is not a flourishing business. Ski trips are also not requested by the observant community. “Skiing is an individual matter”, says Glick, “if one goes to a ski resort, he is not interested in meals or trips, just skiing, and he manages on his own. If people are interested in going as a group, they organize it on their own and not through a company”.
Reproduced with permission: Ynet