Pilgrims' progress: Religious tourism is growing despite a slow economy

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18 2012 9:30 a.m. MST

Buddhist pilgrims in India in 2010.

Bud via Flickr

After leading nearly 800 tour groups through Israel over 39 years, Daniel Rona might be forgiven for saying all of the sites run together.

However, when asked whether he still looks forward to any particular place, he is ready with an answer: the hills of Bethlehem.

Maybe it’s the season.

“Bethlehem at Christmastime is charming,” says Rona, who was born in the outskirts of Jerusalem about a mile from Jesus’ birthplace. “Of the (hundreds of times), I can count on maybe two hands the times there hasn’t been a shepherd and sheep.

“They’re always there. They’re lovely. They’re Muslim, and they don’t know what Christmas is. But they’re curious. They hear us sing Christmas carols and they like it, and they know they’re part of the show — they don’t know what part, but they love to show off their sheep.”

Rona, who describes himself as “an Israeli, an American, a Mormon and a Jew,” said “it’s really hard to concentrate on reading the scriptures when you’ve got this warm, fuzzy lamb in your lap. Through your body you get this sense of awe.”

He believes it’s precisely this type of “holistic” experience that’s fueling the steady increase in religious tourism.

“There is something wonderfully mystical about religion that goes to the heart. Most travel is entertainment and, maybe, body-pleasing, whereas religious travel is spirit-pleasing and speaks to the heart.”

According to a 2011 TravelStyles survey commissioned by Globus, an international tour operator, the number of religious tourists has grown by nearly 5 percent since 2007, despite a global recession and a general movement away from organized religion among Americans and Western Europeans. The survey also estimates that 35 percent of outbound travelers are interested in taking a religious vacation.

Pilgrimage redefined

Putting even a rough figure on the number of religious tourists in the world is nearly impossible. Israel is the only country that asks visitors whether they are traveling for pilgrimage purposes.

Dallen Timothy, a professor at Arizona State University, said a “good educated guess" is hundreds of millions. Timothy, who studies global tourism, believes religious travel constitutes “one of the biggest forms of tourism in the world.”

To support these claims, he mentioned the Hajj (the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that attracts upward of three million Muslims each year to Saudi Arabia) and Kumbh Mela (a Hindu pilgrimage in which as many as 70 million believers gather for spiritually purifying baths in the Ganges and Godavari rivers in India).

He also noted that the increase in religious tourism is due partly to its evolving definition.

It used to be that pilgrims were people who walked up mountains on their knees and beat themselves with branches, Timothy said.

“From the 10th century all the way up to the 20th century, people took their own food, stayed out under the stars and rode horses or walked. Now people are saying, ‘I can stay in a four-star hotel. I can take a tour. I can play golf in between a temple session or Hajj rituals.’"

Greg Hinman sees the same trend. He manages the development of Globus’ religious travel business.

“Twenty years ago you’d take a pilgrimage and you’d do mass three or four times a day,” he said. “In the past 10 years, what we're seeing is the combination of faith and fun. If we go to Italy, we’ll see the Vatican, but we’ll also go to the Colosseum and other areas throughout Rome.”

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