Religious Tourism Cultural Diversity

An increasingly important segment of cultural tourism relates to ‘faith travel’, tourism motivated by religious or spiritual reasons or associated with religious heritage sites. Previously a largely domestic phenomenon, religious tourism has turned into a major international commercial service. Travel agencies offer extensive multifaith journey packages to ancient places of worship, sacred destinations and pilgrimage sites associated with the mainstream faiths.

In November 2008, the World Religious Travel Association (WRTA) held the first global trade and educational conference aimed at the 300 million potential faith travellers, with exhibitors from more than 30 countries drawn from ecumenical communities and travel agencies.

Thus globalization has opened up religious tourism to commercialization, transforming it into a marketable economic product serving overlapping markets: spirituality, physical and mental health, leisure activities, culture, short stays and city breaks.

Given its considerable demographic base, this form of tourism holds enormous potential for fostering interfaith and intercultural dialogue if it is harnessed. Indeed, if correctly conceived, tourism can be a tremendous development tool and an eff ective means of preserving and promoting cultural diversity. Part and parcel of this process is ensuring that such tourism remains sustainable, which means that it deals effectively with issues related to environmental, social and cultural conservation and preservation of local areas.

With regard to pilgrimage sites and destinations, sustainability entails taking steps to equip and maintain — often ancient — monuments that must be protected and restored, as well as providing environmental protection for natural sites using access ways and traffic corridors in order to prevent congestion and not exceed load capacities. Other issues relate to the management and promotion of these destinations, the development of sustainable local economies and respect for the traditions and customs of  the host populations.

In the case of large religious events and gatherings, challenges include how best to manage flows and access in order to ensure that participants are received and accommodated under proper hygienic and public-health conditions (including the allocation of appropriate food services for participants who observe the dietary rules prescribed by their religion), guarantee the safety and security of persons and their property, provide assistance for the sick, the elderly and children who may get lost, and supply information on programming (times of ceremonies, meals, types of meals according to religion and dietary traditions).

Pilgrimage routes and religious itineraries require well-coordinated partnerships and collaboration among all the host communities, tourism professionals and territorial development authorities involved. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has developed objectives and guidelines specifi cally aimed at promoting the rise of sustainable religious tourism. Source: UNWTO, 2008.

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