Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Mormon Tour Industry


While looking on www.deseretbook.com this morning for something, I noticed a link to Time Out Tours. I have also noticed that Meridian Magazine has its own tour business. I am sure that there are many others out there (I'd be interested in collecting these links, so if anyone knows of one, please put it in the comments). These tours are interesting to me because they deal with not only educational tours to Book of Mormon lands, Israel/Palestine, and Church History sites, but also trips to Orlando, Cancun, cruises in the Mediterranean, etc. I am interested in the value that these tours offer to their customers, as well as the values that they express.

One of the curious aspects of the educational tours is the way that they are marketed. The tour guides' qualifications to lead tours to Israel or Gautemala are usually that they are a BYU Religion profressor or have written some humorous or devotional LDS book. Their education, relevant experience, and publications on the subject matter are never mentioned, presumably because they have none of these things. Their qualifications are that they have held prestigious church callings, are nice people, and enjoy the subject matter.
Some of these tours center around a cult of personality, like the Proctors, who advertise trips as an occasion to hang out and learn from them. I am quite sure that there is not a lack of competent LDS who work, research, and publish on matters of church history, archeology, history, etc who are perfectly qualified to run such trips. Why don't they? What is the attraction of popularizers of LDS folklore as tour guides? Is there not a market for experts (or at least competent guides) for Latter-day Saints?

While the other trips to places like Orlando don't require guides with any training or expertise, I am curious about the reasons that people would want to go to Orlando with a bunch of strangers who happen to be Latter-day Saints. I suppose that I understand the impulse to be around people that share your values and that you don't have to explain yourself or your beliefs to (you are on vacation, after all). At the same time, I am concerned that people try to bring LDS insulation with them wherever they go. Rather than have to interact with the actual location around them, including people, these tours encourage members to protect themselves within a bubble, to never have to leave home, even when you leave home.

11 comments:

bodhi said...

I looked on the sites you linked and couldn't see any Religion professors giving tours. Dr. Kaye Hanson is billed as a "Religion teacher at BYU," but she's not on the Religiopn faculty. It's false advertising. She's in the business school, but was Assoc. Dir. of the Jerusalem Center for two years. That's why they have her doing tours. All the other tour guides seemed to be non-academics.

I know some faculty who have done tour groups, but few do, even though they are sometimes recruited. When BYU Travel Study was alive and well faculty used to do more, but it was shut down a few years ago when the liability of travel abroad began to skyrocket after 9/11. Few faculty do tours because, well, they have jobs already. They are only available during holidays and their one summer term off, which they use for personal vacation and research. The few faculty I've known who have done the tour thing soon drop it because tour groups are an enormous amount of work and hassle, and they'd rather use their time off as time off. There are easier ways to travel (conferences!), and besides, Religion faculty are all sent to the places relevent to their disciplines as professional development. I only know one (now retired) faculty member who really got into the tour gig, LaMar Berrett. On the other hand, I know of CES people outside of BYU who are regularly used.

But you're right that it's all about marketing. That's why popular authors and emeritus GAs are often booked on these things. They pull people in. My parents have been on several of these tours and say that the guest talent is usually useless, especially the GAs. Anyway, these are not educational enterprises, but commercial entertainment ventures.

TrailerTrash said...

bodhi,
I think that your assessment is correct about the actual strain that these trips have on scholars in terms of scheduling. At the same time, it seems that the right amount of money for expertise could convince at least a few specialists to enter the field.

I am curious about the point that you have made that CES people are far more likely to lead these tours. Their academic calendar is the same. What is different for them over Religion or other BYU faculty to lead these tours?

As regards the larger point, it does not seem that Mormon tourists value expertise over popularity quite yet, or at least cannot distinguish the difference. FWIW, the problem of unqualified tour guides is probably not unique to Mormonism.

bodhi said...

Travel Study used to pay, but one colleague who was approached recently by a commercial venture about doing a tour group was just offered the trip gratis. No fee. On the other hand, he only had to lecture, not do all the other real work that Travel Study made you do. That might be worth it. But you're right. If there was real money it, scholars would jump at it.

CES guys used to have more time off (the entire summer) and had no research expectations, so they did have more time to burn. They also have fewer opportunities to travel, which makes it more attractive to them. Now they all have to work summers, so that's out. And really, I haven't looked at the whole scene for quite a number of years and don't know what the current trends are. The Israel tours I was most familiar with are not as popular now as in the past, due to the security situation. Church employees are not permitted to travel to Israel as a matter of policy, and exceptions are very hard to win. But if they can get the Jerusalem Center opened up again, as they're trying to, it will help the whole situation.

Dave said...

I stumbled upon this blog this morning. It is of interest to me because I own an LDS travel agency that specializes in these kinds of tours.

I'd be interested in collecting these links, so if anyone knows of one, please put it in the comments

Here is the link to my agency's site: http://www.bountifultravel.com.

I am quite sure that there is not a lack of competent LDS who work, research, and publish on matters of church history, archeology, history, etc who are perfectly qualified to run such trips. Why don't they? What is the attraction of popularizers of LDS folklore as tour guides? Is there not a market for experts (or at least competent guides) for Latter-day Saints?

Regarding this statement: If you look at many of the companies doing these tours, they actually do use BYU professors and others who are experts in some of these areas; and the guides used by almost all of our companies are quite competent. I have worked for/with most of them. Some of the companies utilize LDS speakers and entertainers that have a less-academic orientation, but there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. Many people enjoy a lighter, feel-good type presentation. I do try to provide a deeply intellectual, enlightening tour and have chosen, for the most part, speakers that really are leaders in ancient studies. Many were my former Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern Studies professors at BYU. I personally don't prefer the fluffy, feel-good stuff and have chosen to market my tours to those seeking a very educational experience.

At the same time, I am concerned that people try to bring LDS insulation with them wherever they go. Rather than have to interact with the actual location around them, including people, these tours encourage members to protect themselves within a bubble, to never have to leave home, even when you leave home.

Your tone throughout is a little antagonistic towards these tours. Most of the people that go on these tours enjoy the company of other members, which given the environment on some cruise ships, may not be such a bad thing. Many of the travelers are from areas outside of Utah and it provides them an opportunity to associate with others of their same values...I don't think that is such a negative thing. It is similar to going to education week...just on location. In fact, most of my speakers lecture at education week as well.

I would agree with Bodhi that usually the emeritus GAs are put on them strictly for marketing purposes, which I personally would not do. However, I have been subcontracted to do several of these tours with them and some of them are quite fun to be with.

The problem a lot of BYU professors have doing them is it can be difficult for them to get the time off (especially those that are not tenured, are associate professors, etc.) However, once they are established, they actually have quite a bit of freedom.

I'm looking at your original post date and realize you may not even see this post...but if you are interested in knowing more, feel free to email me through my website Bountiful Travel

Jen said...

I'm living in Japan right now as an English teacher. Most of the people I can take tours with happen to be young, post-college non-Mormons. Usually, when we plan to go somewhere fun, the "event" is centered around drinking and getting really drunk. I'm not from Utah, and I see the huge merit in hanging out with non-Mormons, but I think it really is much more comfortable to travel with other Mormons.

It gets really monotonous after a while being the only one at a party not drunk. So, if I went on a Mormon tour of Tokyo, I wouldn't consider myself "living in a bubble." I'd just be doing things that actually interest me for a change...

Marnie said...

I work for Morris Murdock Travel and we have an Escorted Tours department that offers Church History tours in the US, Israel, and around the world. We just recently purchased LDS Travel Study who offers more of an educational experience that is more in-depth. The hosts and director for both divisions are all experts in LDS History and have worked as religion teachers, at BYU Isreal, or are Church historians. You should check us out.

www.morrismurdock.com/tours
www.ldstravelstudy.org

Thanks!

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