Believe it! Religious tourism is booming

From pilgrimages to theme parks, there’s something for everyone

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OTTAWA, ON Oct 15, 2015/ Troy Media/ – In 2013, more than 215,000 pilgrims reached the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain after walking the Way of St. James.

That impressive number, however, is dwarfed by the million pilgrims who visit the Basilica at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré near Quebec City each year. Or the three million who participate annually in the Hajj, the visit to Mecca that devout Muslims must perform at least once. Or the six million who annually visit Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Or the 80 million who bathe away their sins every dozen years at the Hindu Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India.

Even newer and relatively unknown destinations attract crowds, such as the town of Medjugorje, in Herzegovina. It became a religious site only in 1981, after six children said the Virgin Mary appeared to them. Now it tallies a million visitors annually.

Yes, religious tourism is big. And it’s getting bigger. Researchers suggest the market is more resilient to recessions and is more open to repeat business than secular leisure travel.

According to Kevin J. Wright, director of growth markets at the Kentucky-based National Tour Association, the global faith-based travel sector is worth $18 billion and includes 300 million travelers a year, the majority well educated and with comfortable incomes. “Studies show that 35 per cent of travelers want to take a faith-inspired vacation, so the market potential remains enormous,” he says.

Little wonder tourism operators are keen to hop on the religious tourism bandwagon. For example, Rwanda’s tourism office launched a religious route just last year, centering on the village of Kihebo, where apparitions of the Virgin Mary were first reported in 1981. The Abraham Path has so far developed over 400 kilometres of walking trails across the Middle East, passing places sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.

And several tour operators – such as Swiss-owned Globus Tours and two Toronto-based firms, Craig Travel and Connaissance Travel – do extensive business in the field.

Globus, for example, says its religious tours represent 5 per cent of revenue. One such tour, a 10-day package about Ireland’s venerated St. Patrick, includes churches and other religious sites in Dublin, Downpatrick, Armagh and Knock, but it also embraces sights that draw visitors of all types, including the Giant’s Causeway and a sheep farm.

“Some sociologists have said a pilgrim is half-tourist and a tourist is half-pilgrim,” explains Donn Tilson, a University of Miami professor whose Promotion of Devotion is a book-length study of spiritual tourism. “If you’re in Rome, say, you obviously want to go to restaurants, shop, see the museums – as well as visit the Vatican.” He notes this mix of motives goes back at least as far as the 14th-century Canterbury Tales.

Those mixed motives also mean religious travel isn’t simply about pilgrimage and iconic shrines. “There are culinary faith-based cruises, day-trips to a religious theme park, mission trips to share one’s faith and help meet humanitarian needs,” Wright explains.

Among such options are a seven-day trip to the Azores to take in the Holy Christ of Miracles festival each May; faith-themed cruises, such as one in September with well-known gospel musicians led by Bill and Gloria Gaither (; and group or individual trips to a variety of developing lands to assist with education, healthcare or conservation.

At the moment, about 90 per cent of North American religious tourism is Christian based, Wright says – to some extent reflecting demographic patterns. But, he notes, some 10,000 Americans go on the Hajj pilgrimage, and a variety of firms conduct religious heritage tours of New York that are significant with the Jewish market.

Wright also sees increased targeting of the religious market by secular organizations – including the Pittsburgh Pirates’ faith night, where a regular league game is teamed up with fireworks and testimony from players such as Pedro Alvarez.

Big crowds, particularly at traditional religious sites, can create what Tilson calls “the shadow side of tourism.”

Shrines can deteriorate from greater wear and tear than they were meant to withstand or, as in the case of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, by tourists who take bits of the crumbling structure as a souvenir. They can drain scarce government funds for upkeep or expansion, thus diverting money from healthcare or education. And the sheer crowds or inevitable hucksterism, such as souvenir stands, can wash away the spiritual dimension that drew visitors in the first place.

Still, as Wright points out, faith-based travel is popular because it engages so many dimensions of a tourist’s being. “Faith-based travel is so meaningful because it touches us spiritually, socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically,” he says.

“That last is what sets travel apart from experiencing faith any other way, especially as a pilgrim – you stand right in places central to your faith.”

Read also: 7 North American religious destinations to satisfy your spiritual itch

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