The opportunities and challenges of religious tourism
"Fascinating religious heritage, along with a rich cultural and natural history, has helped to make Europe the world’s leading tourist region. An extraordinary tapestry of art forms, heritage sites and spiritual festivals are living legacies of Europe’s magnificent, diverse and longstanding cultures. These legacies inspired over six hundred million travellers from around the world to visit Europe.
Religious heritage is a big aspect of cultural history, and in fact travel motivated by belief has existed long before the origin of what we now call ‘tourism’. Pilgrimages have long been an integral part of the spiritual discipline of religious devotees. As many participants feel committed to making such journeys, religious tourism is an especially resilient sub-sector. Every year, more than three hundred million tourists visit the world’s major religious sites, with around six hundred million religious voyages taken globally. Religious heritage constitutes an intangible part of European cultural heritage. This historical religious heritage must be preserved for its cultural value, regardless of its religious origins.
Tourism for a better world
Religious tourism can be one of the most effective tools to foster inclusive and sustainable development, for three reasons. Firstly, religious tourism raises awareness of our common heritage, which helps to ensure its preservation. Religious heritage sites have an immeasurable value in religious terms and as a source of public education, identity and pride. And we can reinvest the income from religious tourism in preserving our cultural heritage. Secondly, religious tourism can contribute to community development and empowerment.
When tourists meet and show interest in the unique values of local communities, these communities feel empowered. Tourism helps them to take pride in themselves, in their history, traditions and environment. But this only happens if communities are fully engaged and integrated in the tourism experience around them. Thirdly, religious tourism builds cultural understanding and peace. Tourism breaks down cultural barriers and builds bridges between people, communities and nations; the very foundation of peace. Religious tourism attracts millions of people united in respect and reverence for the world’s great religions.
These are the very same values needed for cross-cultural understanding, for peace building, and to ward off the forces of darkness that threaten our sector. Religious heritage sites are important meeting grounds for visitors and hosts. These encounters are fundamental to maintaining tourism as a force for good, for everyone, in all corners of the world.
Whilst the expansion of religious travel is undoubtedly positive for tourism and a force for good, it also presents us with several crucial challenges. We must ensure that tourism helps to protect, not destroy, our religious heritage – through using revenues from religious tourism in conservation. We must also ensure respect and protection of local traditions and religious practices, especially their intangible legacy. This is particularly important at religious sites. Lastly, we must ensure that social and economic benefits of religious tourism reach host communities, for this is a key principal of tourism for development. By working closer together, we can address these challenges and leverage the opportunities that religious tourism presents."
Taleb Rifai served as the Deputy Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) from February 2006 to February 2009