x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Touring for the faithful

Faith tourism is becoming a big business and is expected to weather the economic crisis.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims circle the Kaaba Mosque in Mecca during night prayers in Ramadan.
Hundreds of thousands of Muslims circle the Kaaba Mosque in Mecca during night prayers in Ramadan.

On a rocky hillside in the middle of the Arabian peninsula nearly a year ago, the Abu Dhabi freelance writer Aliyyah Rizvi-Bokhari joined several million of the Muslim faithful taking part in the haj, one of the five pillars of Islam. At the same time, half a world away on the Japanese island of Shikoku, henro (pilgrims) clad in simple white cloaks were walking a circuit of the 88 temples associated with the eighthth-century monk who introduced esoteric Buddhism to Japan. In the Pyrenees, late season peregrines, or pilgrims, were making their way out of the snowcapped mountains on their way to the northern Spain resting place of one of Jesus's apostles. Meanwhile, in India, Hindus were bathing in the Ganges River at Benares to expunge their worldly sins. All of these rituals are examples of a resurgent interest in what is known as faith tourism, which last year involved an estimated 300 million people who spent an estimated US$18 billion (Dh66 billion). Next week, thousands will flock to a Florida convention centre for the World Religious Travel Expo, the first major trade show to focus on the burgeoning field of faith tourism which exists on every continent except Antarctica. According to one business-minded pundit, faith tourism will be the only segment of the travel industry to escape household budgets ravaged by the global credit crunch. For Canada-raised Mrs Rizvi-Bokhari, though, the haj is not simply a requirement for all Muslims to meet at least once in their lifetimes but a deeply spiritual experience. She said it helped her husband and her to appreciate and connect with the vast global nature of the faith. "We really wanted to do the haj together as a couple, as a fresh start to our lives," she said. "We wanted to start with a clean heart again." The couple wore ihram, simple unhemmed white wraps that are required clothing for the haj. On the second day, they made their way with more than two million others to the plains of Arafat, in the vicinity of the hill on which the Prophet Mohammed gave his last sermon. Spending the day there, contemplating faith and praying, is a required stage of the haj. "The clothes make everyone look equal, but the haj is not just about wearing white clothes. While doing the haj you have to have lots of patience. It can be challenging for a pilgrim when there are gigantic crowds, delays from long traffic jams, pollution from hundreds of buses, and tons of walking to deal with. To get through all that without expressing anger and negativity becomes a test of the pilgrimage. "Mt Arafat was a beautiful experience because everyone was there at one place and at one time on an exact day. "You could see people from all over the world - brothers and sisters in Islam." Around the planet, journeys with religious components are soaring in popularity. The estimated 2.1 million people who performed the haj last year mark an increase of 300,000 since 2000. The Camino de Santiago, the network of routes threading across Europe to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, has been used by pilgrims for more than 1000 years but never in the numbers that now take part. The shortest route is nearly 1000km long and 80 per cent of the peregrines walk it. In the last few years, up to 180,000 people have attempted the pilgrimage. In Japan, the most famous pilgrimage follows the peregrinations of Kobo Daishi, who introduced esoteric Buddhism in the eighth century. As recently as 200 years ago, the road was followed by only a handful of adherents but now up to 100,000 attempt it each year, with most of the henro (pilgrims) travelling by car or bus. A substantial minority undertake the 1200km journey on foot. Six million went to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem last year. An estimated 70 million Hindus bathed in the Ganges at Benares last year, where death and cremation in the Indian holy city is believed to provide an escape from the cycle of rebirths. None of this is a surprise to the World Religious Travel Association, which has designated 2009 as the Year of Faith Tourism and helped organise the World Religious Travel Expo, which begins on October 29. Association founder Kevin Wright said the segment has turned full circle. "Although faith tourism is the historic forerunner of today's mass tourism, only now is faith tourism beginning to make its presence and economic contributions known throughout society and the travel industry," he said. "Faith tourism is one of the few markets that remains dependable and strong during 'good and bad times' - economically, politically, globally, and so forth. In recent years, faith tourism has evolved from a niche market driven primarily by budget pilgrimages and retired folks into a vast and dynamic industry comprised of more than 300 million travellers of all ages seeking a diverse range of quality travel experiences." The conference in Florida demonstrates the breadth of the segment. It aims to cover all denominations but the location inevitably means the various streams of Christianity will dominate. The two keynote speakers - the Jordanian Government's ambassador at large Akel Biltaji and the Bahamas's tourism minister Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace - helpfully demonstrate the divide in faith tourism. For all the trips to places of pilgrimage and religious significance, some religious-themed travel is geared around church groups going on retreats to mainstream holiday destinations or involves conventional holidays like cruise ships but with passengers all sharing a particular faith. One US travel company with a strong connection to the retail side of faith tourism is Morris Murdock Travel in Salt Lake City, Utah, which claims to cater to the theosophical needs of Muslims, Christians and Jews. The company's religious component is hardly surprising because it was set up in 1957 specifically to help Mormon missionaries travel around the world spreading the Latter Day Saints' message. In August, the company's group co-ordinator Wendy Fracchia said its destinations ranged from LDS landmarks within the United States to the holy lands. "We're not just talking about LDS travel, although that is a huge part of the industry here in Utah," she said. "But you also have those of the Jewish faith travelling to Israel, Catholics visiting Italy, and Muslims travelling to Mecca. Faith-based travel is an important part of the industry as a whole. "Our Middle East tours are popular because they allows Christians of any denomination to experience the places they read about in the Old and New Testament. Jerusalem, Nazareth, Mt Tabor, Capernaum, Qumran, Masada, the Garden Tomb, Giza, the Valley of the Kings, Jaffa, and so on. The list of biblical destinations travellers want to experience just goes on and on." phenzell@thenational.ae