An international meeting can be a moving experience for faith-based planners and attendees who want to connect with their spiritual side on a deeper level. Whether exploring Christian roots in Eastern Europe, a growing metropolis in South Africa, centuries-old Buddhist temples in northern Thailand or a blend of historic Mayan and Spanish heritage in Central America, attendees can follow the arrow of a compass in any direction for a voyage of enlightenment and cultural enrichment. The destinations also present a chance to see several venues considered so important from a cultural or physical perspective that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, recognizes them as heritage sites worth preserving. Explore four overseas destinations without stepping foot on a plane.
When strolling through Budapest, Hungary, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, it’s like being on a city-sized movie set. And there is plenty of strolling to do, as it’s one of the most walkable cities in the world, with each religious monument more stunning than the last.
The entire city of Budapest is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its buildings are its greatest treasures. With structures from the Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Ottoman, Byzantine, Baroque and Classical eras, all the way through to Art Nouveau, the city’s history is seen in its architecture. The dome of the much-visited St. Stephen’s Basilica can be seen from all over the city. Named for the founder of the Kingdom of Hungary, the Holy Right—St. Stephen’s incorruptible right hand—rests here. The Dohàny Street Synagogue, featuring architectural elements from the Romantic and Moorish periods, is the world’s second-largest synagogue and today houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial. One of the best ways to enjoy the city is from the Danube River, and cruises are available both day and night. Private cruises with buffet lunches or dinners as well as evening entertainment are also an option.
Budapest was among the top 20 meeting sites on the International Congress and Convention Association’s 2013 report, undoubtedly for its efficient infrastructure and selection of venues. Budapest Congress Center can host groups of up to 2,000 attendees. The facility connects to Hotel Novotel Budapest City, also home to a number of meeting facilities and guest rooms. The new Park Inn by Radisson includes six conference rooms and a ballroom that can accommodate 500 attendees.
After a decade of delays, a fourth Metro line opened in March 2014 to rave reviews of both its service and design. The $2 billion project connects the southwestern Kelenfold railway station in Buda to the eastern Keleti railway station in Pest, under the Danube. ReachBudapest, affiliated with ReachGlobal and the Evangelical Free Church of America, conducts outreach throughout the city, and offers assistance to faith-based groups planning a visit.
Nearest Airport: Budapest Airport
Airlift: No direct service from U.S.; connect in Amsterdam, Munich and London, among other cities
Main Convention Center: Budapest Congress Center
Transportation: Metro, streetcars, buses and taxis
Entry Requirements: Passport only for U.S. citizens
Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town hosted the FIFA World Cup games in 2010, spurring a citywide improvement initiative that saw investments in public transportation infrastructure, energy efficiency, pedestrian walkways and bicycle routes, and the creation of the Inner City Regeneration Project. That same year, the Third Lausanne Congress—a diverse gathering of more than 4,000 evangelical Christian leaders, scholars, academics and business professionals from almost 200 nations—was also held in the South African city, a sign of what was to come as the city has grown into a popular meetings destination.
Four years later, Cape Town International Convention Centre, which hosted the Final Draw of the FIFA 2010 World Cup, is still benefiting from that infusion of development capital. A second round of expansion, currently planned for 2015 (and set to be completed in 2017), will add an additional 107,000 square feet to the venue, which hosted 537 events in 2013.
Encouraged by Cape Town’s social progress, an increasing number of international groups are considering the South African city as a destination for conferences, meetings and events. At the University of Cape Town’s Breakwater Lodge, the African Association for the Study of Religions co-hosts international conferences.
South Africa is often associated with its anti-apartheid campaign, and outreach opportunities are available for groups wanting to honor the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela. For instance, Hands of Honour operates social programs in Cape Flats, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town that has been plagued by poverty and joblessness since its creation by the apartheid government of the 1950s specifically for non-whites. Another giveback option is Cheetah Outreach, an international partnership that works with the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., to develop environmental education resources for underprivileged learners.
Despite the distance between South Africa and the African countries afflicted with Ebola (officials note that Cape Town is closer to Antarctica than the affected areas), the country has been busy trying to diffuse the damage from the outbreak. At least four meetings have been canceled so far.
Nearest Airport: Cape Town International Airport
Airlift: No direct flights from U.S.; connect in Dubai, London or Johannesburg
Main Convention Center: Cape Town International Convention Centre
Transportation: Integrated Rapid Transit System
Entry Requirements: None for U.S. passport holders visiting for less than 90 days for business or tourism
Few countries are happier than Guatemala that the Mayans’ 2012 doomsday prophecy didn’t come to fruition. The home of the ancient empire is enjoying a renaissance since the world kept on spinning. With a blend of the abundant classic spirituality of Antigua Guatemala, and modern niceties as seen in Guatemala City’s skyscrapers, hotels and an updated airport, the country is well-positioned to attract faith-based groups to Central America. It’s already growing in popularity, attracting 33 international events in 2013, up from 13 the previous year.
The volcano-laden country’s crown jewel is Antigua Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage site 40 minutes from Guatemala City. The town dating back to the 16th century is Guatemala’s top tourist hub, with Spanish religious and cultural structures like La Catedral, Palacio de los Gobernadores, Convento de las Capuchinas, Convento Santa Clara, Arco de Santa Catarina and Iglesia de la Merced all within walking distance of one another. Smaller groups can stay in this scenic city for the duration of an event, while larger groups may opt to split time with the country’s capital, Guatemala City.
Hyatt will open a new property in Guatemala City in 2016, and Pedro Duchez, director of INGUAT, the country’s tourism board, says Marriott is planning a property in Guatemala as well. Plans are in the works for a new convention center, which officials hope to begin construction on in 2015. Currently, Barcelo Coperex Fairgrounds Compound, with 11 exhibition halls, is the city’s biggest venue, and hotels like Barcelo Guatemala City and The Westin Camino Real can accommodate groups with hundreds of attendees.
The government has also doubled its police force to guard against crime, says Duchez.A pre- or post-event excursion to Peten, home of Tikal National Park, is worth it to discover all things Mayan. The massive territory, including ancient ruins and a rainforest with 54 types of mammals, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was once one of the ancient people’s most significant cities.
While Guatemala’s economy is among the best in Central America, poverty remains a struggle. Groups can partner with a variety of organizations like the U.S.-based Food for the Poor, which has been assisting Guatemalans in need for more than 30 years.
Nearest Airport: La Aurora International
Airlift: Three daily direct flights from Atlanta, Houston and Miami
Main Convention Center: Coperex Fairgrounds
Transportation: Taxis and first-class (Pullman) buses
Entry Requirements: Passport only for U.S. residents
Chiang Mai, Thailand
It’s hard to beat Chiang Mai, Thailand, when it comes to breathtaking vistas, fascinating culture, a rich culinary tradition and notable service—an ideal combination for a faith-based event. Among the country’s most touted destinations, the city nestled in the mountainous province of the same name has a deep-rooted spiritual heritage, serving as capital of the Lanna Kingdom from the end of the 13th century until well into the 1700s.
The city has invested heavily in courting international events, highlighted by the opening of the Chiang Mai International Convention & Exhibition Center in 2013. With 646,000 square feet of usable space—including a large convention hall, several exhibition halls and 29 meeting rooms—the facility can accommodate myriad meetings. On the smaller side, the 205-room Lanna Palace 2004 Hotel hosts events for up to 250 participants. At Empress Hotel and Convention Centre, planners can hold events in an outdoor exhibition area, or in one of a number of spaces that can hold from 50 to 1,500 attendees.
Visitors will want to make time to see one of the region’s centuries-old Buddhist temples. From atop a mountain peak, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep has beautiful views of Chiang Mai. (Those nervous about climbing more than 300 steps to get there need not worry, a cable car is available.) Wat Phra Singh, which includes Lanna architecture and artworks, is famous for its Lion Buddha. Day-tripping nature lovers seeking misty mountain photo ops can make the trek to Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. In the evenings, Chiang Mai Night Bazaar vendors sell everything from street food to housewares to kitschy souvenirs.
Chiang Mai is also home to Christian Outreach Centre Thailand, a network of churches and ministries focused on community engagement. The organization partners with faith-based groups from the West and helps coordinate trips.
Nearest Airport: Chiang Mai International Airport
Airlift: No direct service from U.S.; transfer in Bangkok
Main Convention Center: Chiang Mai International Convention & Exhibition Center
Transportation: Tuk tuks (three-wheeled taxis); songthaews (buses); private cars
Entry Requirements: Passport only for U.S. citizens
By Erin Caslavka Deinzer, Carolyn Heinze and Matt Swenson