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Glen Willardson
Bethlehem sheep.

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.”

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.

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.