Millions travel the world, seeking the sacred

Tens of thousands of Muslim pilgrims pray inside the Grand Mosque, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Nov. 4, 2011. The … Continued

Tens of thousands of Muslim pilgrims pray inside the Grand Mosque, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Nov. 4, 2011. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws three million visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world. The Hajj will begin on November 5. (Hassan Ammar — AP)

In the late 1980s my ailing mother decided to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Back then, religious travel to Europe was infrequent and my mother didn’t speak French. Eventually we assembled an itinerary for her and she made the trip, returning home feeling blessed if not free of cancer.

Now thanks to the explosion of the travel and tourism industry, pilgrimages and religious travel are experiencing a boom in the U.S. and around the world.

While no one was noticing, the travel and tourism industry has risen to become one of the biggest businesses on the planet. It is changing cultures, societies and countries. Already tourism employs one out of eleven people and contributes $6.4 trillion to the global economy. It is the definition of modernity: flying across the planet to sample new cultures and new ideas.

Not surprisingly, this explosion has lifted religious travel. Visits to sacred landscapes and religious pilgrimages are still among the top reasons people travel. The single biggest annual travel event is the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Over the centuries, the religious impulse to visit the holy sites of prophets and saviors was undergirded by rules requiring such pilgrimages and promises of salvation, especially for Muslims and Hindus. Today many predominantly Muslim countries have a Minister of Hajj who negotiates with Saudi Arabia for some of the precious three million visas given out every year for the trip. Then the ministers parcel out the visas, and travel packages, to their citizens who will then fulfill their religious responsibility to do the Hajj once in a lifetime. (Needless to say, there have been instances of corruption in these ministries.)

Even without the compulsion of religious duty, people are returning to religious travel. A 2011 study by the United Nations World Tourism Organization found that people make over 600 million religious voyages every year. More than half are in the greater Asia and Pacific regions, the cradle of world faiths, and nearly 40 percent in Europe.

This is not the old fashioned pilgrimages like my mother took, spending days praying in Lourdes and staying at a clean but simple lodge. Nor is religion confined to the traditional forms.

Nowadays religious travelers can easily find five-star package tours to Mecca, Jerusalem or Lourdes. And tourists to yoga retreats often consider their trips spiritual. Spend an hour or so at your computer looking up pilgrimage packages and religious tours and you’ll see how faith is now one of the reasons we are breaking all travel records going around the planet.

Religious leaders are pleased that the ease in travel has boosted pilgrimages. However there is concern that some of those trips are so commercialized that the religious nature itself is diminished. Most days the temples at Angkor are entirely given over to tourists. Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris feels like a fish bowl with tourists walking up and down the outer aisles staring at you and the priests. Some religious package tours to Europe offer more time sightseeing and shopping than praying. Religious performances in southern India are sometime reduced from two hours to fifteen minutes for the tourists. The commercial competition for religious tourists is noticeable in Israel where the only way foreign Christians can make a pilgrimage to the West bank town of Bethlehem is through Israeli checkpoints. To the chagrin of Palestinian Christians, Israeli tourist agencies have a near monopoly on the profits from foreign Christian tours.

That said, a religious sojourn has deep appeal. Pilgrims search for a return to their roots, for greater inspiration and sacred knowledge. That search can go against the grain of much commercial travel that accents consumerism, voyeurism and hedonism.

An example of getting religious travel right is the Spanish Santiago de Compostela, one of the oldest Christian pilgrimages in Europe. Now protected as a United Nations World Heritage Site, this route has been saved from the worst of commercialization and is now shared by people of all faiths or no faiths. Some are seeking to enrich their spirituality; others to re-examine their lives, and still others to revel in a few weeks of peace and quiet. That may be the answer. Protect what is sacred and all travelers can find meaning.

Becker is the author of OVERBOOKED: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism

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