Religious tourism as a concept did not develop overnight. For decades, people have been travelling to religious sites. However, in ancient times, travel was permissible for people from the highest echelons of society only. These people earlier clubbed culture, ethnicity, religion, and leisure activities to enjoy their travel. In modern times, religious tourism has become a niche market, with people constantly travelling within their country and overseas to visit religious and spiritual destinations because of their beliefs.
Nowadays, taking a pilgrimage to the most favoured religious structure has become much easier. Be it near or far, there is a special section of religious tourism itself that includes tour packages including one or more pilgrimage sites for devotees.
What is Religious Tourism?
The idea of religious tourism has developed since the dawn of civilization. Pilgrims used to travel to pay homage to the sacred places and their guardians all across the world. In the past 2,000 years, tourism to sacred sites has merged with pilgrimage. And in the past 200 years, wealthy Europeans started to visit unique sacred ritual sites in Europe and the New World.
The term religious tourism and other connotations like ‘spiritual tourism’, ‘sacred tourism’, or ‘faith tourism’ are often used interchangeably. It is a form of tourism with two main subcategories:
- the pilgrimage that means travelling for religious or spiritual purposes, and
- sightseeing, the viewing of religious monuments and artefacts
Why is religious tourism so important?
The sites that hold unique sacred significance witness tourists of all sorts for millennia. What is now of formidable importance is that these sites need to be protected, conserved and interpreted. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of guardians to these unique places of visitation and worship. Also, even fewer sources of funds gather to maintain and manage these sites for visitors and worshippers.
The primary purpose of religious tourism is to worship; there are, nonetheless, other reasons why travellers undertake this form of tourism. Some of them are:
- Gratitude and Confession: People often turn to the divine to seek help when they face a life crisis. Hence, they visit the shrine to thank the god, deity, or goddess for their’ divine intervention’. On the other hand, others may resort to religious tourism to liberate themselves of their sins. Some people believe that their problems are due to their sins, and visiting a sacred site is based on their belief that communicating with the divine and asking for forgiveness will release them from their sins.
- Spiritual Salvation: In many cultures, a visit to a pilgrimage is a mark of devotion. This belief is particularly true among Hindus. They visit religious sites to amass religious merit. On the other hand, Buddhists go to a sacred place because it is considered the first step in attaining enlightenment.
- Celebrate Religious Events: Some people visit religious sites to celebrate specific religious events.
- Communicate with Other Believers: For some others, pastoral visits give them a chance to meet and socialize with fellow believers. It helps them reaffirm their religious beliefs in a contemporary environment.
Religious Tourism in History
The management of religious tourism faces numerous challenges that are unique in both breadth and its application. It is a popular notion that sites of religious significance have existed since biblical times. The pilgrimage in the Judeo-Christian context also finds mention in the Old Testament of the Bible. Evidence of religious tourism is also present in the New Testament Pentecost story (e.g., the Jews went to Jerusalem from all over the world for Passover). Many of these sites still exist among other sites; although they have decayed and been ruined over the centuries, they still hold a considerable heritage value.
Managing Sites of Religious Tourism
Most of the religious sites belong to reputed religious organizations. It is one of the main reasons that cause challenges for their management, as they have to balance the needs of worshippers with the visitors. For example, mosques are at the centre of Islamic tourism, yet Muslims and non-Muslims visit them. So, Muslims visit mosques while travelling both as a tourist attraction and a place of worship. Therefore, most mosques play a dual role, i.e., they function as a place of worship and a community centre.
Most Muslim countries, especially those in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), welcome tourism, particularly religious tourism. However, they distinguish between pilgrimages, the most famous being the Hajj, and certain other forms of religious tourism. Non-Muslims are welcome at sites such as mosques; however, they are not welcome at the Hajj.
Today, the Hajj is considered one of the primary forms of pilgrimage, with millions of Muslims travelling to Makkah (Mecca) in Saudi Arabia every year. Undoubtedly, it has become the most important Muslim pilgrimage. Therefore, there is an earnest need to distinguish between Muslim travellers to Muslim sites on the one hand and non-Muslim visitors to these sites on the other. Further, Non-Muslims are not acceptable to enter the region of Hejaz, where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina exist. Other religions, too, hold similar problems concerning conflicting motivations.
Top 10 Religious Tourism Hotspots of the world
Mecca, Saudi Arabia
For the religion of Islam, Mecca is the holiest city. The city sits on the Arabian Peninsula, and it lies 210 miles to the south of Medina. On average, 13 million people visit Mecca every year, and nearly all are Muslims. In Islam, devout Muslims are encouraged to make the journey to Mecca (the Hajj) at least once in their lifetime as religious tourism. However, many make the trip to Mecca annually. According to the Islamic calendar, the final month is the time when Mecca is busiest. During this time, two million Muslims (approx.) come to celebrate Hajj. Mecca’s holiness stems from the fact that it was the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. Further, the site also has the first revelation about the Quran.
Vatican City, Italy
The Vatican City in Italy is visited by nearly 4.2 million people every year. It is a place of pilgrimage and religious tourism hotspot for many devout Catholics. The city is an independent city-state located in the middle of Rome. The city’s captivating beauty and historical relevance attract tourists and architecture buffs in droves from all across the world. The city is home to the pope and is also considered the spiritual centre of the Catholic Church. A focal point for both sightseeing and worship is Saint Peter’s Basilica. It was designed by several renowned architects, such as Michelangelo and Bernini. It is regarded as the holiest of Catholic shrines by many devotees.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi, India
Located on the western bank of the river Ganges, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is a religious place for Hindus. Devotees believe the river Kashi itself has healing powers, and the temple is considered one of the most famous in the Hindu religion. The temple follows Shaiva philosophy, a metaphysical concept of a supreme being known as Brahman. The religious tourism hotspot temple attracts over 22 million visitors every year, i.e., 3,000 people each day on average. The structure of the present temple was built in 1780.
The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, Israel
Israeli police estimated in 2016 that over 11 million people visited Jerusalem’s Old City and the Wailing Wall (Western Wall). The number has surprisingly increased from the mere three million people who visited the site in 2003. The most frequent visitors are the followers of the Jewish faith, and some of them make more than one trip a year. The Wailing Wall is a holy site for Muslims; therefore, the control of the wall has for long been a subject of contention between the two religious groups.
The Wailing Wall is a place of prayer, and it has for long been a sacred place to the Jewish people. The original wall was part of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, and it dates back to the second century B.C. However, the Romans destroyed the temple in A.D. 70, but the wall remains to this date. The Wailing Wall that stands today is 160 feet long and 60 feet tall.
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
For Catholics worldwide, the Notre Dame Cathedral is yet another religious tourism magnet and site of pilgrimage. It exists in the heart of Europe, Paris. The cathedral is the most-visited attraction in all of France and the 13th-most-visited tourist destination in the world. Annual visitors to Notre Dame are estimated to number 13.7 million. Notre Dame is one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. The marvellous architecture of the cathedral combines glowing stained glass, naturalistic sculptures and Romanesque architecture.
Basilica Of Our Lady Of Guadalupe, Mexico City, Mexico
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is visited by 20 million people (approx.) every year. According to Catholics, this architectural marvel came into being when the Virgin Mary appeared to an Aztec peasant known as Juan Diego in December of 1531.
A bomb was planted in a flower vase in the basilica in 1921. Due to this, there was significant damage to the building’s interior. Following the incident, the Old Basilica was closed for many years. The cathedral stands till this day, but its neighbour, the New Basilica, now joins it. The New Basilica can hold over 50,000 people for Mass.
Senso-Ji Temple And Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, Japan
The Senso-Ji Temple in Japan annually witnesses over 30 million visitors. The religious tourism hotspot temple is a must-see spot for any traveller who passes through Tokyo. Built in A.D. 628, it is the city’s oldest temple. In the evening, this five-story pagoda glows with accented lighting. Street vendors sell food to tourists on the temple’s Nakamise Street during the day. The Temple is a hot spot during New Year celebrations and other special occasions. Senso-Ji temple is consistently ranked in the top 10 for temple attendance during the New Year.
Located in Shibuya, Tokyo, the Meiji Shrine lies close to the Senso-Ji Temple. In 1915, the construction of this shrine began and was completed in 1916. The shrine was a token of dedication and respect to the spirit of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Unfortunately, during World War II, the original structure fell apart. However, later, the restoration process took place. The new building stands in a 170-acre forest and has an evergreen glade containing 365 different species of flora and fauna, which people from all over Japan donate.
Golden Temple, Amritsar, India
The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, is considered the most influential house for the Sikh community of India. The temple is made of white marble and overlaid with gold leaf. The Golden Temple lies at the centre of a large artificial pond ringed by a walking path. The temple conducts daily ceremonies and attracts crowds of pilgrims and visitors. In addition, a Central Sikh Museum lies close to the temple that contains many exhibits and displays of Sikh culture.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (Christianity)
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter, is observed by most Christian denominations as containing the faith of two holiest sites:
- the place where Jesus was crucified and
- the tomb where he was buried and resurrected.
These locations were historically in the open, and only later was the church constructed to contain them. Thousands of pilgrims journey to the site each year. Especially during Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday, the site witnesses scores of pilgrims. According to Christian tradition, there is a belief that the last four Stations of the Cross occurred within the contemporary church walls. Further, there is an ornate altar of the Crucifixion that sits upon the rock. This religious tourism spot is the place where Jesus is said to have died.
Taktsang is a Buddhist monastery and temple popularly known as “The Tiger’s Nest.” The monastery sits perilously on a cliff, and it lies 900 meters (2,952 feet) above the Paro Valley in Bhutan. It alone makes it worth a trip for the views. This temple/monastery was built in 1692 at the cave site where the second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, was believed to have meditated for “three years, three months, and three hours” to ward off evil from the world. The site has become sacred ever since. Tourists can reach it via a steep, two-hour climb from the valley.
One of the best parts about places of religious pilgrimage is that they not only hold spiritual and religious significance, but they also tend to feature stunning architecture along with a vibrant social scene. With religious tourism becoming ever popular nowadays and tour packages including religious tourism hotspots, it has become easier for everyone to go on a pilgrimage to their preferred religious structure. Captivating in the architecture is just a bonus to soaking in the history of these sites or the spiritual significance if you have a religious inclination.