Every 10 years, the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, Germany, presents a spectacular five-hour Passion play about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, drawing thousands of travelers from across the globe. Nearly half the local population participates in the 100-plus performances between May and October, which take place in a custom-made, 4,800-seat theater.
“It’s an exclusive event,” said Jim Edwards, vice president of U.S. affinity development at Collette. “Only half a million people around the world will get the chance to get a ticket.”
The Oberammergau Passion Play is one of the longest-running theatrical events in history. The tradition began nearly 400 years ago in 1634 when the Black Plague epidemic threatened Europe and resulted in the deaths of over 75 million people. As the disease spread throughout the region, the villagers of Oberammergau prayed for divine intervention and promised to re-enact the Crucifixion every 10 years as an offering to God if he would save them. By the following year, not a single villager had contracted the pestilence, and the Passion play tradition has carried on ever since.
“It’s about the story beyond the story — how God spared the little village of Oberammergau from the Black Plague,” said Edwards.
The play involves two segments: one two-and-a-half-hour portion in the afternoon, followed by a dinner break, and then another segment in the evening. Groups typically book one or two nights in the region to watch the performance and explore some of the surrounding highlights. Ticket prices are tiered according to the quality of theater seating, hotel rooms and dinner reservations included in the package, and planners can choose from a variety of combinations to best suit their interests.
“One thing that people should know is that no one is given the hotel assignments in advance,” said Brian Doughty, president of boutique group tour operator Trips Inc. “We try to make it clear that people may be in the town or they may be in a town nearby.”
According to Joanna Dyer of Globus, many tour operators start planning for the event 18 to 24 months in advance and typically sell out on every tour.
“Our coaches generally accommodate about 44 people, and we hope to fill all of them,” said Dyer.
Globus ties the Oberammergau Passion Play into several of its existing cross-European itineraries, four of them specifically faith-based. The company’s river cruise brand, Avalon, offers the play experience at the end of the cruise as a special extension.
In March of last year, the Collette marketing team visited the village to lay the groundwork for its upcoming tours and meet with key actors in the play, including the actor who plays Jesus.
“We’re not new to this,” said Edwards. “We’ve been working with the Oberammergau committee for a long, long time.”
Collette generally packages the tours around central Europe and Alpine countries such as Germany, Austria and Italy. The company also incorporates the play into its Imperial Cities river cruise, which showcases the cities of Budapest, Prague and Vienna.
“All of our tours are created by a product and design team. Because we’ve got so much history, we know what itineraries are top-sellers,” said Edwards.
Some companies, like Trips Inc., create a more condensed itinerary through regional destinations like Bavaria and Austria.
“Unlike the other big tour companies that attach Oberammergau to tours they already have going, we create a special tour just to pair with this,” said Doughty. “We make ours fairly simple in scope.”
The 2020 Oberammergau Passion Play will take place from May 16 to October 4. Tour operators are now selling packages and suggest that travel planners begin to make arrangements for their groups this year, as seats will sell out sometime in 2019.