Inside the World of Faith-Based Travel
Edita Krunic is an immigrant to the US. She started her business, “Select International Tours,” in 1985 in New Jersey. Not just a typical tour company, Select International focused on a little-known travel market: pilgrimages to holy places. In this exclusive Regina Magazine interview, Edita takes us on a special tour, inside the booming world of faith-based travel.
I was born in Sarajevo in former Yugoslavia, in what is now Bosnia. My parents were anti- communist and very religious. They could not pray, prosper or raise their children in freedom so they decided to leave their homeland.
With the help of a Lutheran Church organization we came to the USA. To support myself through college and graduate school I worked in a travel agency, first as a receptions, then a travel agent, an office manager and then a branch manager. Later I worked as a sales manager for an airline. I worked my way up and attended school full time, and was so grateful for the opportunity as my friends in Yugoslavia could do neither, study or work they had no opportunity as I did. Travel was always a passion so I studied International Relations, hoping to work for the United Nations.
However my life path led me to Medjugorje in southern Bosnia and Hercegovina where the Blessed Mother was appearing to a group of young children. I was curious to see what was going on in this small, remote village where thousands of people were coming from all over the world, to pray and petition the Holy Virgin for a cause. That trip changed my life because immediately upon arrival I felt a tremendous sense of peace and serenity engulf me. There was so much hope and good energy in this small place that I decided to quit my job and start a pilgrimage company.
I wanted to share with Americans the special feeling I had there. There was no doubt in my mind that I was in a holy place.
I wanted to share with Americans the special feeling I had there. There was no doubt in my mind that I was in a holy place. Just as a visit to Medjugorje changed my life and the Blessed Mother set me on a path, I believe going on a pilgrimage impacts people in a very powerful and profound way – if they are open to the change and allow it.
Tell us about your business.
Our origin was as the first US-based company offering organized pilgrimages to Medjugorje. Then we added Rome to our product line. The other destinations such as the Holy Land, Poland, England, etc were added based on client demand. When a client who traveled with us wanted to visit a new Shrine, we did our research, visited the place and created the new itinerary.
We never offer a destination unless we visit the places first, because people rely on our experience and knowledge. We now offer Faith-Based trips to all of Europe, South America, Mexico and Canada. Educational travel was added five years ago, again based on client demand.
Our new product line is “educational pilgrimages”. I believe we are the first company to offer a spiritual trip which combines visiting the holy sites along with exploring a hobby or a passion. Our bestselling Faith and Food trips have had a huge response from people — obviously people love to pray and to eat well.
Have you seen an increase in interest in faith tourism?
There has been a tremendous increase in Faith-Based travel. I believe people are looking for a strong connection to their faith and religious leaders are responding with offering pilgrimages. Travel is a great church and community outreach program and many organizations are starting to use travel for fund raising. More traditional travel companies have jumped into the market which also helps to create awareness and buzz.
There has been a tremendous increase in Faith-Based travel. I believe people are looking for a strong connection to their faith, and travel is a great church.
What kind of people go on your tours?
The age of the travelers varies as do their backgrounds. We work with many Catholic groups, as well as Christian Orthodox and Protestant groups. People come from all over the country and from all walks of life. The common thread is their need to learn more about their faith, to connect with the history of their religion and to pray.
Pilgrims are people of hope and curiosity. With a well-planned program and a strong spiritual leader a faith-based trip is a life changer. I stress that not every travel company offering religious travel has the background and the staff who can plan a good religious trip, so people need to do their research and find the right fit.
Where have you visited? What has been your favorite place?
I have been blessed to have traveled to almost all the countries in Europe, Canada, Mexico and the Middle East. My favorite is the Holy Land. There is no match for the importance of walking in the steps of Jesus, seeing the Bible come to life and standing on the Mt. of Olives looking over the Holy City of Jerusalem. Christianity vibrates through every pore of my body on a Holy Land trip.
I also love Italy, Ireland and Portugal. I love it all, I love and live to travel. In Israel I felt the pain of the dwindling Christian population, especially the women who do not have much opportunity, which led to Select International Tours establishing a not-for-profit foundation, Select to Give. We focus on supporting women’s programs in Bethlehem.
Our program ‘Sharing the Bread” takes Western Christians into the homes of locals for a meal. Breaking bread together in a home setting breaks barriers and opens up communication like no other program. We help support women through this program and make connections among the Western and Holy Land Christians.
‘Sharing the Bread' takes Western Christians into the homes of locals for a meal. Breaking bread together in a home breaks barriers.We help support women and make connections among Western and Holy Land Christians.
Do people deepen their faith on your tours?
Yes, their faith is renewed and strengthened because they are immersed in prayer and reflection for the duration of the trip, visiting beautiful holy sites which you have heard and learned about in church but on a trip you are actually experiencing them.
Our trips are not religious vacations; they are real pilgrimages, filled with faith and prayer. This is an important distinction between Select International and other travel companies.
I lead a very large group, VIP from an Archdiocese to Holy Land several years ago and was stressed out because I wanted every detail perfect. The spiritual leader, a Father Gill, every time he saw me made a sign of the cross, smiled and said ‘Peace, Edita’ in a beautiful calm voice. After a few days I started to relax and every time I thought of Fr. Gill and his peace gesture I smiled and started to relax.
My staff, business partners and I now use this simple but powerful method to bring peace and harmony to into our body and mind every time we feel stress. It’s beautiful and works.
Recently, a young man who was abused as a child and very tormented by his past accompanied us on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. He found peace and the ability to deal with his addictions and the demons inside him. He is now on a path to recovery.
Do you know of anyone who has converted or returned to the church as a result of your tours?
We hear many stories of people changing, turning their lives around, strengthening their marriage, dealing with addiction and substance abuse after a pilgrimage.
Most recently, we heard of a young man who was abused as a child and very tormented by his past. After a pilgrimage he found peace and the ability to deal with his addictions and the demons inside him and is on a path to recovery. His experience was on a pilgrimage in Lourdes, but we hear stories from people of all religions.
This is the most gratifying part in this niche of the travel market. We hear and see all the time the impact a trip makes on one’s life. We call them trips of spiritual destiny, because if your destiny takes you on a trip, it’s a life changer. One must be ready, be open and allow the change.
We hear and see all the time the impact a trip makes on one’s life. We call them ‘trips of spiritual destiny', because if your destiny takes you on a trip, it’s a life changer.
PHOTO CREDITS: SELECT INTERNATIONAL TOURS, HARRY STEVENS