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

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

Globus projects a 40-percent increase in its religious travel business next year. Hinman said church-group travel is one of the primary drivers of this growth.

In search of grace

For Suzanne Garber, the pilgrim’s call came in 1998. As a single woman in her late 20s, Garber didn’t want her parents to worry about her backpacking alone in Israel, so she told them she was traveling to France before hopping a trans-Atlantic flight.

In truth, she did stop off in the City of Light. But after several days there, perhaps just long enough to ease her conscience, she was bound for Tel Aviv, Israel.

Arriving with little more than a Bible, a Sony Walkman, and a handful of clothes, Garber, who now lives in Philadelphia, stood in the middle of the Negev Desert on her first day feeling very much alone. That soon changed, however, as she met numerous other pilgrims in search of "knowledge, peace and grace."

Fourteen years later, she remains mesmerized by her first encounter with Israel, using the words “glorious”, “fascinating” and “inspiring” to describe her time at Masada, Golgotha, the Mount of Olives and the Western Wall.

Lisa Klug, author of two books about contemporary Jewish culture, “Cool Jew” and “Hot Mamalah," believes that the growth in spiritual tourism may be a reflection of people’s desire to make meaningful connections in a world in which work and technology increasingly dominate.

Klug said that according to Jewish tradition, each Jewish person has something inside called a "pintele" (pronounced pin-tel-a) Yid, "which is like the little Jewish spark inside of a person." In her view, all people possess some version of this spark that is hungry for spiritual connection.

“You could argue,” she said, “that at a time when many people feel so disconnected from their families and are challenged with a poor economy and other obstacles to their happiness, they find meaning and community in their faith.”

Such people, Klug said, “would be inclined to take a meaningful journey, a vacation that’s infused with spirituality.”

Daniel Olsen, an associate professor at Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada, observes that “fewer and fewer people are going to church, but more and more people are going to spots they hold as special or sacred.”

"We have people who are looking for spiritual experiences," said Jonathan Bruger, general manager of Adventure Life, a Montana-based tour operator. "We hear that all the time, on a daily basis."

Commercialization of sacred sites

The search for meaning, the conveniences of modern travel, the desire to find community in a common journey — all of these are driving an increase in religious tourism. With that increase comes the conundrum of commercialization.

“When the tourists initially come (to a sacred site),” Olsen said, “the locals say, ‘Great, we can make money off them.’ But then they begin to realize very quickly that, 'yes, we have a lot of tourists come and, yes, we’re making money, but we’re kind of losing our soul, metaphorically speaking.'

“In Nepal, for example, you take a four-day ceremony and shrink it down to 30 minutes for the tourists that come. Well, you just lost a whole large part of your culture and your religious belief and faith and practice because you’re catering to the tourists.”

Religious site managers often say they wish they didn’t have to deal with tourists, Olsen said, but they need the money. He said that in Italy alone, about $250 million is made each year on religious souvenirs.

Whole local economies, such as those in Lourdes, France and San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy rely on religious tourism.

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