The Breadth and Importance of Religious Tourism

  July 31, 2021   Read time 4 min
The Breadth and Importance of Religious Tourism
A typical image of religious pilgrimage is tourism associated with Lourdes in France. This small town (population 16,581 in 1990) in Hautes-Pyrénées, south-west France, lies at the foot of the Pyrenees.

Famous for its Roman Catholic shrine where ‘Our Lady of Lourdes’ is believed to have appeared repeatedly in 1858 to St Bernadette, millions of people today make the pilgrimage each year, drawn by their faith in miraculous cures attributed to the waters of the shrine. Similarly huge numbers of Muslims (over 2 million in January 2006) visit Mecca every year. Woodward notes the importance of the hajj for example, to the economy of Saudi Arabia. This is worth around US$ 1.5 billion, with 40% being spent on the rental of rooms to pilgrims, and so a major input to local economies. Yet, as discussed later, there are serious conflicts of interest over this impact, and considerable damage to the resource has resulted. Both the breadth of the topic and of associated research are important. Bhardwaj notes that research has neglected non-hajj pilgrimage in studies of Islam and of tourism, and it is the same scenario for other faiths. Much focuses on better-known sites and bigger events, while lesser-known activities are neglected.

Tourism associated with religions, sites and pilgrimage is recognized as ever more important. This is for both religious reasons per se and economic impacts. The small village of Epworth in north Lincolnshire, UK, was the birthplace (1703) of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come from around the world, especially from the Far East and the USA, to visit the site or to take part in celebrations. These visitors are the cornerstone of an emerging tourist economy in an area of severe economic and social decline. In the Western world, we live in an increasingly secular, often non-religious society. Whether this lacks spirituality is a different question. Harvey and Blain et al. consider these issues in terms of diverse religions and religious experiences. In the UK, for example, the diminished role of the organized Christian church is paralleled by a growth in multiculturalism and moves towards other sources of spiritual enlightenment and fulfilment.

In some cases, these include a return to paganism such as the Druid movement. This re-emerged in the Victorian era, influenced by both the Romantics and the work of antiquarians such as William Stukeley, whose research associated ancient Druids with places like Avebury and Stonehenge. In some cases – such as Stonehenge and Stanton Moor in the Peak National Park (England) – there are major conflicts over spiritual ‘ownership’ of these heritage sites. Jenkins raises interesting points about the heritage issues and about the cultural ‘ownership’ of sites such as Stonehenge by neo-ancients and Druids. The numbers of visitors, both religious and secular, can be huge (817,981 in 2004 for Stonehenge). For instance, visitors to Stonehenge may be secular, nonpractising Druids; many Western tourists visit Mount Fuji, Japan (the latter has over 25 million day visitors per year).

The search for spirituality may include extreme sports such as mountaineering, and many visits to beautiful locations, both cultural and natural, have a degree of spirituality whether conscious, overt or hidden. Tresidder and Aichison et al. discuss these, and Woodward addresses broader roles of visits to sacred sites in the wider context of tourism products. Inspection of UK visitor data provides insight into the importance of visits to sacred sites. The UK has 61 cathedrals which, excluding worshippers, attract around 19 million visitors per year. Taking data from the year 2000, 19 of the UK’s 50 most visited buildings were cathedrals York Minster receives around 1.6–2.2 million visitors per year, the city having over 1 million leisure visitors and 2.5 million retail tourists. This is part of a tourism economy in the city worth over £250 million per year, supporting 9000 jobs.

Lincoln Cathedral has nearly 250,000 tourism visits per year. In 2000, it began charging £4 for entry; income is vital in maintaining the fabric of the buildings and the quality of facilities and experience for visitors. Tourists and their spending are major contributions to a regional tourism economy based on 3 million staying visitors and 18 million leisure day visitors to the county (Lincolnshire) per year, and worth around £800 million.

There is a challenge to spread benefits more sustainably throughout the community and to sustain the more remote, but often historic, rural churches. Around 12 million people annually visit nearly 17,000 churches and chapels across the UK, though the real importance to tourism is undoubtedly much greater. Miller is actively promoting the wider church network in the context of places to visit and recreational walks around Lincolnshire. A typical English village church location may reveal settlement and significance extending back beyond Christian cultural use, having drawn visitors from distance for millennia. Increasingly now, these places attract secular visitors, tourists being the new economic if not spiritual lifeblood of village and community.

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