Over the last 30 years there has been a revolution quietly happening in the global tourism industry. Terms such as eco-tourism, responsible tourism and even voluntourism have entered common usage. Now there is an emerging trend on the horizon that is being cited at the fastest growing sector in the whole travel business. They call it "spiritual tourism" and it is starting to be taken very seriously by governments, state tourism authorities, even the United Nations agency responsible for global tourism - the UNWTO. 22 November, 2013 heralded a new era for the recognition of the growing importance of spiritual tourism as the UNWTO convened the 1st International Conference on Spiritual Tourism for Sustainable Development at Nimh Binh outside of Hanoi in Vietnam.
One of the first challenges for those interested in "spiritual tourism" is defining exactly what it is. Believers taking part in religious pilgrimages such as Muslims doing the Hajj or Buddhists visiting the four sacred sites in India and Nepal are plainly recognised as "spiritual tourists" as are the 500 000 people belonging to various faiths (or none) who annually walk the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James). But what about the avalanche of tourists who visit say Notre Dame to admire her architecture and history - are they really spiritual tourists or is there a different category again for spiritual sightseers? How about my own visit to the Australian war memorial in the Somme where my grandfather fought in World War 1 - was this a kind of "spiritual tourism"? Some commentators would say yes. Some say no. The only thing for sure is that the debate about definitions is bound to go on for a while.
Back in 2008 when we lunched the Monk for a Month program offering guests the experience of living the life of a Buddhist monk, we tapped into something bigger than we could have predicted - the ever present human search for meaning, for wisdom and for answers to life's most profound questions. Later we facilitated Muslim for a Month and the Sufi Mystic Experience in Turkey based on the spiritual insights of Rumi. We discovered that such immersive travel experiences were not only stimulating for spiritual development (expansion of consciousness) for participants but were also a powerful tool in breaking down prejudices and increasing understanding across cultural and religious divides for guests and hosts alike. The entire experience was moving on many different levels and everybody involved came away transformed. New bonds of friendships were forged across cultures while at the same time people were having some intensely personal spiritual experiences. I will never forget standing at Rumi's mausoleum in central Turkey where many in our group (from every point of the faith/no faith compass) were overcome with strong emotion. It is a strikingly spiritual place. We heard that it was a similarly profound encounter for many guests on the later programs as well. Through running these various immersion programs we had some exciting glimpses into the many-layered transforming power of spiritual tourism, albeit on a small, personal and grass-roots scale.
Having run these very niche experiences that always seemed so out-there-beyond-the-fringe of the mainstream travel industry, I was thrilled and not a little surprised to learn last month about the UNWTO's international conference on Spiritual Tourism. I was excited to be able to attend and be invited to present among such esteemed speakers and delegates as the former Tourism Minister for Indonesia Mr. I Gede Ardika and the representative from the Spanish government responsible for administering the Camino de Santiago, Mr. Jose Paz Gestoso. There were some excellent presentations and the conference was very well attended by local Vietnamese authorities. The Vice President of Vietnam was herself present for the first session as were many monks and religious leaders and there was some lively discussion between the audience and the panel members throughout the two-day event.
Long-time travel industry observer and journalist Mr. Imtiaz Muqbil gave an interesting overview of a tourism industry in transition - moving from what he called the three "S"s of the old tourism - Sun, Sand and Sex towards what he sees as the emerging three "S"s in the new tourism being Serenity, Sustainability and Spirituality. If this evolution of values in tourism gains traction and is ongoing then there are some serious implications. Considering that tourism is the largest service industry on the planet employing 260 million people, responsible for 9% or the worlds GDP and now having passed the 1 billion mark in arrivals each year, it is not hard to see that even small movements of the needle measuring travellers' motivations and values can have a big impact on our world.
The responsible travel movement is a success story, albeit a work still very much in progress, it stands as an example of what can be achieved. Likewise there are credible organisations such as the International Institute of Peace through Tourism, which since 1986 has held a banner high in testament to the twin power of tourism to facilitate peace and for peace to facilitate tourism in a beautiful, virtuous circle. While for now governments, their tourism departments and agencies (and therefore to some extent the UNWTO) remain focused largely on the economic indicators of the travel industry, it is clear to see that thinking on these issues is on the move. The Vietnamese government in hosting this conference and championing the idea of spiritual tourism is showing considerable leadership. Perhaps they have seen the results of unbridled mass tourism in neighbouring Thailand (Sun, Sand & Sex?) and are seeking a different direction? In any case, as long as the human thirst for meaning and wisdom remains, spiritual tourism can only grow and if well managed can bring many layered benefits such as personal spiritual development, increased inter-cultural understanding and inter-faith literacy, sustained economic growth and a deeper appreciation of the rich and brilliantly diverse spiritual heritage of humanity.
In an age of soulless materialism and endless consumption, taking time out to explore the depths of the world's wisdom traditions is probably a good idea. Such "spiritual vacations" may well be a catalyst that brings greater enlightenment to the individual, increased understanding between different cultures and may even help to foster an emerging spiritual renaissance.