Florence Cathedral

To What Extent Does Tourism Make Religious Sites Into Commodities?

Are people of modern-day society guilty of turning religious buildings into a commodity? Commodification is the process through which an object, place or culture is transformed into a commodity. The tourist gaze is according to Guy Debord life in modern society, is being dominated by images and performances, which he calls spectacles. With both explanations, we can gather an understanding of the meaning of being a tourist.

Religion and tourism throughout the years either contrast or complement one another in the minds of others. Pilgrimages have been happening for centuries and were viewed as an early form of tourism. It was a journey in which people would visit different religious sites for devotional reasons, a way of cleansing the soul and bringing inner peace to one’s self. Tourism could also be described as such. When people travel, they seek new places and experiences along with the opportunity to recharge themselves from everyday life.

Tourism in the modern world is on the rise. The Grand Tour was established in the seventeenth century. British travellers, mainly the aristocracy and scientists, were using the opportunity to travel to Europe in the name of both knowledge and science. It was not long into the nineteenth century that a new group of people were partaking in this adventure. The middle class had seen this as a chance to join in and experience it for themselves, this time visiting places with more leisurely activities. If we think back to the pilgrimage and its purpose of seeking out a religious journey from ordinary life, we can look at one particular historical figure. Thomas Cook was an entrepreneur who became an important part of early tourism. He was brought up in a religious household, became a minister, and tours the villages preaching and advocating abstinence from alcohol. With a religious background and an interest in photography Cook decided to combine both into a package tour for Temperance Society members. Here one could suggest this is an early form of using religion as a basis for tourism, on one hand, you have a group of religious people who are travelling to the Holy Land for moral benefit. However, they hold an interest in photography therefore the trip would have a religious benefit but with the added tourist trait of capturing images. It is hard to decipher if this particular situation would fall under commodification because their initial purpose for the trip is not simply sightseeing.

The first question we can ask is if tourism destroys the meaning of religious sites and objects? If we look at the shrine of St Sara located in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer a small village in Southern France. The Romani gather to celebrate their patron saint however it is not just those of Romani background who gather for the event. Hundreds of people from across the world come to the small village to witness the celebration. This is because the event is not only a religious celebration to the faithful but it is a spectacle for visitors from all over ‘as tourists seeking an encounter with authentic Romani culture and tradition’. This celebration is a holy one and will attract people of a religious nature but this does not keep the event from the tourist gaze. According to theatre historian Eric Wiley, the procession attracts around 15 thousand people who line the streets to the waterfront to witness

The Romani carrying the statue of St Sara to the sea. The local men wear traditional black hats and carry old-fashioned bull prods as the people watch the symbolic cleansing of the statue. However, ‘the local tourist offices promote the pilgrimage not as a religious event but as a cultural spectacle’. is it then the people who are involved within the tourist sector who have found the opportunity to turn this celebration into a commodity? When the Romani villagers are involved the celebration is set apart from tourism by continuing an ancient tradition. The tourists are merely spectators to this cultural event but it does not exclude them from seizing an opportunity with the tourists ‘The Romani who carry the icon from the church to the sea dress in costume presenting journalists and tourists alike with numerous photo opportunities’. This is a smart and subtle way for the Romani people to show their culture to a wider audience. Journalists will publish their stories along with any images on several different media platforms. It can be seen as an effective way to promote their ancient tradition and celebrate it with an audience therefore I do not think tourism destroys the meaning of religious sites and objects. Instead, I feel it gives a platform for a wider audience to appreciate traditions and heritage.

To what extent does tourism make religious sites into commodities? If we now take a look at Bodh Gaya the first clue of commodification would be that the temple has been listed as a UNESCO protected site. This speaks volume for the simple fact that a heavy tourist crowd are expected to visit the site. The tourist board have planned measures in place as protection from the average person to help keep intact the respect and upkeep of the religious site. Like the shrine of St Sara people who are not necessarily religious are expected to travel to Bodh Gaya to witness first-hand a new cultural experience, this could cause issues such as disrespecting a sacred space and not following expected customs. If we look at the megaliths of Flores the countries tourist board are yet again promoting the site to visitors in their guidebooks in the hope of attracting an audience. However, what seems to be common is to mediate the entire image of the megaliths by developing the surrounding areas to make them visitor friendly. It is even suggested ‘megaliths are deliberately associated with an ancient past’ a scheme in which the tourist board could have invented to draw a larger crowd to earn money. The perspective we observe when we are studying religious sites and objects depend on the tourist board and how the site has depicted an example of this is in Indonesia at the megalith of Flores ‘On the island of Flores, which is quite remote and relatively impoverished […] the Indonesian government has promoted tourism not only as a way of stimulating the local economy but as a way of promoting nationalism’. The opportunity has been taken advantage of to use the countries religious structures to make money. It would be up to them to make the relevant developments to set apart any sacred places or objects from the tourist gaze.

I do not feel tourism has turned religious sites into a commodity. In the modern world, we live in a constant tourist gaze. It is hard to avoid and I understand why countries and tourist boards promote certain sites on a variety of platforms. Tourism is empowering to different cultures as it keeps the tradition alive. The religious meaning may not be the same for everybody but the important thing is that the meaning is still there for the few it matters to the most, the promise of money at the end is always a bonus.

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