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

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

Problems can arise, Olsen said, when pilgrims come to a site for worship purposes and tourists are there for entertainment purposes.

“You have kids running around screaming, people wanting to take pictures of people praying. How do you deal with that? That leads to a lot of management issues. Should pilgrims have to pay to pray? How do you maintain a sense of reverence?”

The Muslim tourism market exceeded $125 billion in 2011, according to DinarStandard, a research and media firm focused on emerging Muslim markets. Annual growth of nearly 5 percent is expected through 2020. Such numbers are changing the face of Mecca, Islam's holiest city.

“Mecca has massive, 5-star resorts around the sacred sites,” Timothy said. “A lot of Muslims wouldn’t want to acknowledge that that happens. They would say those aren’t real pilgrims. But those who do participate in the more luxurious element — fly first class, get picked up with a nice taxi, etc. — they’re doing the ritual, they’re undertaking their ritualistic obligation.”

In August of this year, the Saudi Press Agency reported that Saudi Arabia’s cabinet had approved a $16.5 billion “Mecca Metro” system that will include 113 miles of track and a new bus network.

Purists may protest, but they’re dwindling in number. Timothy said religious institutions that used to oppose commercialization “are now saying, 'well, it’s a reality. We’ve got to face it. So what can we do to help the local economy?'"

Investments in infrastructure can actually help protect sacred sites, argues Olsen. When asked for an example of effective site management, he pointed to Temple Square, home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ iconic Salt Lake City Temple in Utah.

"When you go on the site you can’t buy a souvenir," Olsen said. "The church has done a really good job in terms of keeping the commodification market outside of their sacred sites."

He also mentioned the Church's recently-completed $1.5 billion City Creek Center, a mixed-use development adjacent to Temple Square.

"You don't want your crown jewel surrounded by dilapidated buildings and shoddy businesses. It's an investment on the church's part to maintain the aesthetic quality of that particular area."

David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at dward@deseretnews.com.

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