What is pilgrimage tourism and why is it important?

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(Last updated on: 28/01/2022)

Pilgrimage tourism is an extremely popular type of tourism, but what exactly is pilgrimage tourism and where does it take place? Read on to learn all about it…

What is pilgrimage tourism?

Pilgrimage tourism

Pilgrimage tourism is essentially the process of visiting pilgrimage sites. These are primarily religious destinations, and can even be said to have formed a very early version of tourism. 

Typically, pilgrimages are long journeys taken over days, weeks or even months for religious purposes. They are a whole journey, one that people of faith take in order to strengthen their relationship with their religion. However, pilgrimage tourism can include visits to specific churches or mosques or other religious landmarks in the city you might be visiting on holiday. It doesn’t have to be a long drawn-out journey (a typical pilgrimage), it can be a quick visit that forms part of any other kind of tourism. 

In his paper The Issues and Perspectives of Pilgrimage Tourism Development in Thanjavur, S. Vijayanand strengthens this definition of pilgrimage tourism as follows:

Pilgrimage tourism is the type of tourism that entirely or powerfully motivates tourists for the achievement of religious attitude and practices. One of the oldest types of visiting the attractions and a global experience in the olden times of spiritual growth, it can be differentiated into different forms. The temporary religious sightseeing is well-known by excursions to close by pilgrimage centers or religious conferences. The durable implies visits of quite a few days or weeks to nationwide and worldwide pilgrimage sites or conferences.

Why is pilgrimage tourism important?

When talking about the importance of pilgrimage tourism, we can split this in two. How important is pilgrimage tourism for the destination, and how important is pilgrimage tourism for the pilgrims themselves?

For the pilgrims

Traditional pilgrimages are important to many people. They are linked to almost all religions across the globe; people travel to certain destinations to experience religious enlightenment. The journey itself, often long and sometimes difficult, is a chance to reflect. Whether taken alone or in a group, a pilgrimage is something that helps people in some way. This might be something people choose to do after a loss: being alone with your grief as you journey to somewhere spiritual can be a great way to healing. 

Pilgrimage tourism

Or, you might just want to change your life in some way. The chance for reflection and being alone with your thoughts for days at a time might help you make a tough decision that you’ve been pondering on for a while. If you’re trying to decide whether to take a new job, for example, or whether to stay in your relationship and so on. Big life decisions are often made during pilgrimages!

Pilgrimages can be a way to deepen your relationship with your religion too. It is a way of showing how dedicated you are to your faith, certainly, and it is a chance to learn more about the religion itself. Pilgrimages tend to echo the footsteps of prominent figures from different religions, or they end at somewhere that is very significant. 

Another reason why pilgrimages are so important to so many people is that it can be a chance to ask for forgiveness of, or seek a favour from, the deity you worship. Because the destination tends to be such a holy place, many people believe that praying here means there is a higher chance of your prayer being answered…

For the destination

Pilgrimage tourism is all about going somewhere. There are many destinations that are popular with pilgrims, as they hold such significance for different religions.  As with any type of tourism, pilgrimage tourism has a huge economic impact. Some pilgrimage destinations and locations rely entirely on this kind of tourism for their income. This, in turn, is passed on to the surrounding areas. B&Bs get bookings, restaurants see more foot traffic, local shops gain customers. Jobs are created: for tour guides, for people making handmade souvenirs, for photographers and so much more. 

NBC News says: Religious travel generates at least $8 billion a year for shrine-centered economies and provides employment for thousands, according to academics — and being able to measure the celestial and spiritual elements of pilgrimage in monetary terms is far from a modern phenomenon; it’s as ancient as the act of spiritual travel itself.

Pilgrimage tourism

It is also important in that it allows people who work at these religious pilgrimage destinations to share their faith. This is a big thing for many.

Many destinations see day-visitors too. That is, people who have not undertaken a long journey to get there (i.e the pilgrimage itself) but who still want to visit the location as a tourist. This ploughs a lot more money into the industry!

Non-religious pilgrimages

It should be mentioned that the term ‘pilgrimage’ does not always have to be used in relation to religious destinations. The term can often just mean someone going somewhere that is *really* special to them for one specific reason. This is more of a personal pilgrimage. It is still a type of tourism, of course! Examples include Elvis superfans visiting Graceland, or someone travelling to another country to finally watch their favourite football team in action.

There will be a few destinations on the list that are instantly recognisable to most. And there will likely be some that don’t automatically spring to mind. All are places that people visit for the purposes of pilgrimage tourism…

Lourdes

Located in southwestern France, this is a popular Catholic pilgrimage site. It rose to prominence when a peasant girl claimed to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Pilgrims tend to visit between March and October. Since 1860, over 200 million people are said to have visited here – and 68 miraculous healings are said to have taken place. The spring water from the grotto is said to have healing properties.

Mecca

This holy city in Saudi Arabia is a Muslim pilgrimage site. The journey here is known as Hajj, and it takes place annually. This is a mandatory duty for all adult Muslims, who are expected to go at least once in their lifetime if physically and financially able to do so. It takes around 5-6 days, and millions of Muslim men and women take this journey together every year to Islam’s holiest city.

Camino de Santiago

There are several routes to choose, but all lead to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, located in Galicia, Spain. His remains are said to be buried here. This is a long journey, but one that is very popular and has a huge impact on pilgrimage tourism. There are several hostels/B&Bs to stop in along the way, and you can spot many scallop shapes along the route as this is the symbol of this pilgrimage.

Lumbini

In Nepal, this is said to be the birthplace of Buddhism. As such, many Buddhists from across India and beyond make the journey here every year to where Siddhartha Gautama was born in 623 BC. A beautiful and bright location, it is an important spot for pilgrims who want to see the stone slab where he was born and the pool he was bathed in.

Western Wall

Also known as the Wailing Wall, this is located in the old town of Jerusalem. It is the most important place of pilgrimage for people of the Jewish faith because of its proximity to Temple Mount. This is where God’s presence is felt and manifested the most. Because Jewish prayer is forbidden at Temple Mount due to its Islamic connections, the wall is the next best place. People pray and mourn here, with prayers written down and stuffed into the many cracks in the wall itself.

Jerusalem has many other sites that are considered to be important sites for Jewish pilgrims. People also visit Via Dolorosa, Mount Zion and the Mount of Olives among other famous places.

Bethlehem

Located in the central west bank of Palestine, Bethlehem is a popular location when it comes to pilgrimage tourism. According to the Nativity, it is the birthplace of Jesus which is why so many Christians are keen to visit. There is a church here with a grotto, said to be the exact place of Jesus’ birth. Around 2 million people visit every year.

Medugorje

A smaller pilgrimage location that is definitely not as popular, this is a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since the ‘80s, quite a few children have seen apparitions of the virgin Mary. This is why Medugorje is gaining recognition as a somewhat untraditional site of pilgrimage. It currently sees around 1 million visitors annually.

Vatican City

This is an incredibly popular location although not necessarily a pilgrimage site. It is of great importance to Catholicism, however, so it earns a place on this list. Many Catholics come here to pray, for an audience with a pope and to admire the beauty of the Sistine Chapel and the rest of this tiny enclave.

Pilgrimage tourism- further reading

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