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Religion and Tourism

December 23, 2010

I had a conversation this evening over religion and tourism, in response to a recently seen book on this topic. When I first put the two words together, I couldn’t help but think of how the hotels in Bethelehem are full at this time of year. If you’re going to travel, why not celebrate Christmas by making a pilgrimage to the place where it was all supposed to begin?

My own experience with and contemplation on the concept of religion and tourism actually relates mostly to the area of short-term missions. Having spent some time working with different mission organizations and having done some training for missions, I was frequently enough confronted with the question of how useful short-term missions actually are. The term ‘religious tourism’ was sometimes used in disdain to describe short-term missions – the only ones who seem to get any significant benefit from the mission trip are those who have gone on the trip: they’ve made good memories, felt good about themselves, and been exposed to a different world. The effectiveness of the help given, the value of the money spent (often significant amounts for the transportation of the volunteers), and whether the volunteers actually learned anything significant from the experience – these things are all questionable. Nonetheless, short-term mission experiences can be positive – and the ‘tourism’ involved is not necessarily negative. Being confronted with other cultures, other ways of doing religion, asking questions about the value, purpose, and/or effectiveness of the trip are all positive things.

But short-term missions, even as it raises questions about religion and tourism, is merely a small subset when it comes to religious tourism. According to wikipedia, “Religious tourism, also commonly referred to as faith tourism, is a form of tourism, whereby people of faith travel individually or in groups for pilgrimage, missionary, or leisure (fellowship) purposes.” When doing a quick search online via google, a report on students studying in Israel and a link to a monastery are among the top ten results. The question of how tourists, religious or not, relate to religious sites is also high among the results posted.

On the one hand, it is for me a fascinating topic to think further about. But, on the other hand, I wonder exactly where the discussion would go – and whether it would lead to any specific results or just general ponderings. After all, I’m a religious person – when I am a tourist, I don’t stop being less a Christian – and that affects all of what I do and how I look at things. Furthermore, a significant population of the world is religious to some degree and those who travel to their land/area are confronted, at least somewhat, with the religion that is there. Lastly, significant numbers of the sites of interest to tourists are connected to religions. A side point here is a question on what role religion plays when some of Europe’s churches have become more museums and cultural artificacts than religious buildings.

In any case, the discussion will continue around the dining table here.

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