Tourism and Religion

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TOURISM AND RELIGION . Tourism and its associated practices interact with religious life and the institutions of religion in virtually every corner of the world. From Amish communities of rural Pennsylvania to the snowy summits of Mount Fuji in Japan, from the mysterious ruins of Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes to the monumental pyramids of Giza in Egypt, from Chartres in France to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, millions of tourists seek out places of religion every year. The relationship between religion and tourism, however, amounts to far more than places of religion that host tourist visitors. In fact, there are at least three broad approaches to understanding this relationship: spatial, historical, and cultural. Each of these illuminates different implications for religious life when tourists enter a sacred precinct.

Spatial Relations between Religion and Tourism

Tourists and religious adherents often occupy the same spaces; consequently, they both play a role in attributing meanings to these spaces and in sustaining the sacred character of sites that host both casual and deeply committed visitors. In fact, the religious meanings that make a place sacred also make the site a meaningful destination for tourists. At the same time, however, tourists and religious practitioners usually have very different attachments to and understandings of these sacred spaces.

Spaces become sacred according to the historical, social, and cultural contexts of particular religious traditions. The holy nature of Mecca, for instance, cannot be understood apart from the historical and sociocultural contexts of Islam. Indeed, the close identification between Islam and its most sacred city make them nearly indistinguishable. Likewise, the shrine at Tepeyac, which houses the sacred image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City, gains its auspicious powers from the miraculous appearance of the Virgin there; these powers, however, also derive from the historical circumstances of colonial relations between European Christians and Native American converts, as well as from the racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic dynamics of subsequent generations of Catholic worshippers at the site. Both of these cases demonstrate how places are made holy according to particular religious traditions and the spatial practices that sustain their sacred character.

Tourists, on the other hand, arrive with a different set of spatial practices embedded in their own peculiar historical, social, and cultural contexts. Unlike religious practices related to particular sacred spaces, however, the spatial practices of tourists rely on modern conventions of travel and aesthetics practiced in the context of global capitalism. Hence, they make these spaces into touristic places that remain distinct from the sacred places of religious people. At Tepeyac, for instance, the sacredness sustained in veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe appears to a touristic sensibility in terms of aesthetics, history, and the exotic otherness of unfamiliar cultic behaviors. Thus, the space of Tepeyac becomes simultaneously a place of religious practice and a place of touristic indulgence.

Places of both religion and tourism range from the predominantly religious to the predominantly touristic. As an example of the former, the prohibition of non-Muslims in Mecca keeps Islam's most holy city free from purely touristic travelers, although the touristic imagination of non-Muslims makes it a desirable, if improbable, destination. In contrast, Uluru in Australia, the world's largest monolith, retains its mythic significance as a sacred site for Aboriginal people, but it is best known for the striking beauty of its ethereal hues. A half million annual visitors make the journey deep into the Australian interior to view the giant outcropping set in the stark outback landscape.

Between the extremes of predominantly religious and predominantly touristic lies a great variety of religious places that host significant numbers of tourist visitors. These places range from the ancient to the contemporary, from auspicious features of the natural landscape to glass and steel architectural structures, from remote spots far from human habitation to the centers of the world's most densely populated urban areas. In addition, tourists seek out religious events that include regularly performed rituals, special dedicatory events, festivals, and carnivals. There seems no end to the types and locales of religious sites and celebrations that appeal to the curiosities of touristic travelers.

Among the most auspicious of places that tourists seek out are natural features regarded as sacred by one or more religious traditions. Mount Fuji, for example, looms above the Japanese landscape as a sacred monument in both the Shintō and Buddhist traditions; at the same time, the mountain serves as one of Japan's most recognizable icons for tourists. Caves, on the other hand, tend to appeal to visitors more for their ancient artwork associated with prehistoric religions rather than for their inherent sacredness. At places like Lascaux in France and the Altamira caves of northern Spain, visitors can tour exact replicas of the caverns complete with detailed copies of their ancient paintings, even though entrance into the caves themselves is restricted at both sites.

Tourists also visit the architectural ruins of places where ancient peoples practiced their religions. Among the most famous of these sites are the remains of structures built by the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and other civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean world. Similarly in Indonesia, travelers can visit the restored Buddhist temple of Borobudur. Prehistoric sites in the Americas include the monumental pyramids and other sacred structures of Teotihuacan in central Mexico, and the Inca ceremonial center of Machu Picchu in Peru remains a favorite stop for tourists.

Places where contemporary people continue to practice their religion also capture the attention of tourists. Tourists can view the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites for Muslims in the ancient city of Al-Quds (Jerusalem). Also in Jerusalem, an ancient ruin that remains an active place of religious practice for Jews is the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, popularly known as the Wailing Wall. In Rome, holy places of Christianity abound; among the most popular are St. Peter's Basilica and other sites of the Vatican. In Japan, the Ise temple complex, the most sacred site of the Shintō religion, is a favorite destination for tourists.

Tourists often take more interest in witnessing religions in practice than in merely viewing the places of religion. A visit to a church, temple, mosque, or shrine becomes more meaningful and fulfilling if a ritual or some other event happens to be occurring at the time of the visit. Special celebrations and religious festivals generate even more enthusiasm among visitors. Widely known festivals such as Carnival in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil or Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the United States attract huge crowds every year. But smaller, lesser-known celebrations often have greater appeal for travelers. Visitors in China intent on experiencing authentic Chinese culture may have more interest in a local village's Lantern Festival than in a large celebration that is widely promoted in tourist literature.

There is no end to the places and events of religion that tourists visit each year, and an attempt to list all the possible religious attractions for travelers would prove futile. Indeed, outsiders visit religious sites and witness religious activities virtually everywhere. Many of these visitors do not regard themselves as religious practitioners or pilgrims; they come as tourists, modern consumers of religious culture. Certainly, a good number find themselves actively participating in religious practices at the places they visit, but at the same time they rarely falter in pursuit of their touristic objective to have authentic, aesthetically pleasing experiences.

Historical Relations between Religion and Tourism

It is tempting to suggest that tourism has its roots in religious pilgrimage. In fact, as categories of practice and experience, pilgrimage and tourism are easily confused. In contemporary settings, pilgrims often engage in touristic activities; like tourists, they take photographs of the places they visit, they purchase souvenirs and gifts, and they avail themselves of the same transportation and lodging accommodations that tourists use. At the same time, tourists who visit religious sites, including pilgrimage destinations, sometimes find themselves participating in religious practices, and many so-called tourists are overtaken by feelings that can be described as religious at sites regarded as sacred. Thus, it is easy to confuse the experience of the tourist with that of the pilgrim.

Yet despite the difficulty of distinguishing between them, the practice of tourism has origins largely independent of the traditions of religious pilgrimage. By 1780, when the term tourist first appeared in the English language, conventions of recreational and educational travel in the Western world already had established themselves with more than two centuries of development. In fact, the history of touristic practices follows on the same historical forces that challenged the traditional authority of Christianity and consequently led to the demise of pilgrimage in much of northern Europe. These include the rise of humanism beginning in Renaissance Italy and spreading northward; the Protestant reformations of the sixteenth century that shook the foundations of traditional church authority in Christian Europe; and the Enlightenments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which introduced new models of political authority and modern forms of subjectivity. Along with their profound impact on European societies in general, these movements also changed the expectations and requirements for an educated citizenry. Sara Warneke (1995, p. 30) notes that, instead of a pure scholasticism pursued in earlier times, the Renaissance education sought to prepare students for a life of service to their community, their prince, and their state; this often included stays in foreign states to learn firsthand the culture and politics of other societies. By the second half of the sixteenth century, significant numbers of travelers were leaving their homelands in hopes of gaining the educational benefits of a continental journey.

Following the Thirty Years' War of the seventeenth century, travelers settled into a conventional pattern of educational travel that would be the basis for what became known in the eighteenth century as the Grand Tour. Not unlike their counterparts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, participants in the Grand Tour sought education and refinement. But tourism changed over the course of the eighteenth century. Early in the century a classical view of the Grand Tour dominated, most typically involving young men traveling with an entourage of servants and tutors to selected European destinations, most often Paris and Italy, to finish their education and practice the refinements of cultivated society. But in the second half of the century, as Jeremy Black (1992, p. 300) points out, the classical model became less typical as more people traveled for enjoyment and amusement. Black goes on to note that although many aristocratic families continued to send their sons abroad for education and social finishing, the emphasis on education declined as tourism joined in the growing European fascination with leisure activities (p. 303).

By the time of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, travel practices in Europe were undergoing significant changes that precluded a return to the heyday of the Grand Tour. Steamships and railroad service allowed for more convenient, more enjoyable, and less time-consuming tours of the Continent. And although tourist travel throughout most of the nineteenth century remained primarily a privilege of wealthy classes, the growth of railroad transportation made travel available to at least a few members of the middle classes. In the twentieth century, however, mass production of automobiles, along with a trend toward shorter workweeks, allowed greater numbers from all but the lowest socioeconomic classes to indulge in regular, if infrequent, tourist travels. Air travel has extended the range of the twenty-first-century tourist to every continent on earth, and space travel has even taken tourists even beyond the earth's atmosphere.

From the very beginning of tourism's history, tourists have held a fascination with religion. Early travelers of the European Renaissance regularly visited churches, cathedrals, shrines, and other religious sites in their studies of the art, architecture, culture, and history of the nations they visited. On occasion, Renaissance travelers also condemned the practices of the religious people they encountered at such places. In fact, the humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) signaled a pivotal moment between Christian pilgrimage and the beginnings of religious tourism with his colloquy "A Pilgrimage for Religion's Sake," which first appeared in 1526, with an anonymous English translation appearing a decade later as "The Pilgrimage of Pure Devotion." Erasmus traveled as a secular visitor to various pilgrimage sites where he had little patience for traditional religious practices; indeed, his observations and subsequent criticisms of pilgrims reflected the groundswell of intellectual, political, and religious reforms sweeping Europe at the time.

The tension between practices of the earliest tourists and those of their pilgrim counterparts, as exemplified in Erasmus's essay, has continued into the twenty-first century. In fact, pilgrimage sites remain favorite tourist destinations even today. Nonreligious visitors frequent such popular Christian pilgrimage destinations as Lourdes in France, Santiago de Campostela in Spain, and the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. In the Hindu tradition, Benares, India, serves as a favorite destination of tourists, and Buddhist stupas throughout Asia attract both religious and nonreligious travelers. In these auspicious religious places, pilgrims become tourists even as tourists fancy themselves as pilgrims. A cultural understanding of tourism, however, reveals that the appeal of religion as a desirable attraction for tourist visitors extends beyond the confusion between tourist and pilgrim. In fact, tourism as a modern cultural practice transforms religious places, rituals, artifacts, and people into objects for touristic consumption.

Cultural Relations between Religion and Tourism

Tourism amounts to a set of cultural practices aimed most often at aesthetically pleasing experiences of unfamiliar places and peoples. Tourists encounter cultural otherness by leaving their familiar surroundings, but touristic practices tend to domesticate unfamiliar places and novel experiences by making them into objects of consumption. In this regard, tourism exemplifies modernity; in particular, its conventions, habits, and discursive concerns rely on and respond to the forces of modern capitalism, especially in its emphasis on consumption, its tendency toward globalization, and its aesthetic proclivities. Put simply, tourists are practitioners of modernity. Moreover, tourism has become pervasive in modern life. Not only do modern people travel far more than ever before, but as some commentators insist, they are tourists most of the time, even in their own homes and communities. Indeed, touristic practices pervade the modern way of life.

On the other hand, tourists rank among the most maligned of modern subjects. In fact, derogating tourists is a part of being a tourist; Jonathan Culler (1981, p. 130) notes the somewhat ironic fact that tourists gain esteem by denying their status as a tourist; indeed, there is always someone else less adept in the arts of modern travel whom one can disparage as "tourist," elevating oneself as something better than a tourist. Consequently, maligning others conceals one's own touristic inclinations and practices, even as it makes one a better tourist.

Being a better tourist, then, involves having only a discreet engagement with touristic practices. At the most fundamental level, these practices rely on the technologies, networks, and discourses that constitute modern travel practices in general. Travel practices can be defined as any practice, discourse, or circumstance that either necessitates translocal movements or that generates a desire for travel and encourages people to travel; besides tourism, these practices also encompass migration, business and trade, military deployments, research excursions, family visitations, and many other forms of and motives for travel. The practices themselves involve various modes of transportation, most commonly airlines, trains, buses, and automobiles. They also include communication networks that facilitate travel, especially telecommunications and the Internet, but also television and radio broadcast media, newspapers and magazines, and other forms of mass communication. Other aspects of the modern practice of travel include banking networks that allow convenient and trustworthy currency exchange; accommodations for lodging and food services; and any other services or products that meet the needs and desires of modern travelers.

Besides modern infrastructures and services that make global travel possible, convenient, and comfortable, touristic practices participate in modern discourses that make travel desirable. Foremost among these is a discourse on experience. In fact, as a discursive category, experience serves tourism as an epistemological mode of knowing the world in a modern way. This includes equating authenticity with truth and interpreting experiences as meaningful by aestheticizing landscapes, cultures, events, cities, villages, and even entire societies. In fact, touristic discourse attributes aesthetic qualities to anything and everything that travelers might encounter. Indeed, tourists everywhere seek out and expect the most authentic and aesthetically pleasing experiences possible.

The emphasis on experience in touristic discourse aligns tourism with religion in the modern world. Robert Sharf (1998, p. 95) points out that theologians and scholars of religion invoke the category of experience in dealing with two peculiarly modern challenges to traditional religious authority: empiricism and cultural pluralism. Indeed, the claim of authentic religious experience forestalls critiques of religious authority on strictly objective, empirical grounds. At the same time, cross-cultural similarities of religious experiences lend a universal authority to the category of religion beyond the limited claims of particular religious traditions. In a similar fashion, touristic experiences, at once both authentic and aesthetic, confer validity, authority, and meaningfulness on the modern traveler.

As a modern practice, however, tourism submits these experiences to a thoroughgoing process of commodification. Every sight, sound, and taste; every locale and event; indeed every experience available to modern travelers becomes subject to a system of exchange that commodifies them in aesthetic terms for touristic consumption. Tourists are hyperconsumers of aestheticized culture, including religion. In fact, religious people themselves oftentimes adopt touristic practices to commodify their religion for touristic consumption. They do this not only for financial gain, but also to proselytize, and in many cases religious groups capitalize on touristic attention simply to present themselves and their religion publicly in the best possible light. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes advantage of touristic interest at Temple Square in Salt Lake City to tell the Mormon story in heroic terms and to draw visitors into the church's missionary process. On the other hand, numerous churches in Europe pay for their upkeep and improvements by charging admission to visitors and by operating retail shops where tourists can purchase souvenirs and religious paraphernalia.

This process of commodification highlights the implications of the encounter between religion and tourism. Nearly all religious people in the world today must contend with the challenges that modernity presents to long-standing traditions, and tourists bring those challenges into the sacred spaces of the world's religions. By involving themselves in the touristic discourse on experience, both authentic and aesthetically pleasing, religious people conform to conventional assumptions about the role of religion in the modern world even as they assert the validity and power of their religious traditions and values in modern terms. At the same time, tourists experience religious life according to their own assumptions, expectations, and desires. Consequently, most tourists rarely appreciate the uniqueness and complexity of the religious practices and traditions they observe in their touristic travels. On the other hand, viewing tourism from the perspective of its spatial dimensions, understanding its historical origins, and regarding it as a cultural phenomenon of the modern world obviates a simple dichotomy between religion and tourism. Differentiating religious people and tourists in strictly oppositional terms becomes more difficult when considering the many dimensions of their relationship. Indeed, tourism and religion are not mutually exclusive, and in fact they often reside together in individuals who remain at once both tourists and religious adherents.


Adler, Judith. "Origins of Sightseeing." In Travel Culture: Essays on What Makes Us Go, edited by Carol Traynor Williams, pp. 323. Westport, Conn., 1998. Adler discusses the historical shift in tourism in the modern Western world from an emphasis on texts to a focus on images and visuality.

Black, Jeremy. The British Abroad: The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century. New York, 1992. This is one of the most thorough historical studies of the European Grand Tour.

Bremer, Thomas S. Blessed with Tourists: The Borderlands of Religion and Tourism in San Antonio, Chapel Hill, N.C., 2004. This case study explores religion and tourism in San Antonio, Texas.

Brockman, Norbert C. Encyclopedia of Sacred Places. Santa Barbara, Calif., 1997. A compendium of places throughout the world regarded as sacred, all of which host tourist visitors.

Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass., 1997. An anthropologist's analysis of travel as a vehicle for modern understandings of culture.

Crick, Malcolm. "Representations of International Tourism in the Social Sciences: Sun, Sex, Sights, Savings, and Servility." Annual Review of Anthropology 18 (1989): 307344. An examination of how social-scientific studies tend to represent international tourism.

Culler, Jonathan. "Semiotics of Tourism." American Journal of Semiotics 1, nos. 12 (1981): 127140. This essay regards tourists as semioticians and offers a semiotic analysis of authenticity in touristic discourse.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays. Translated by William Weaver. San Diego, Calif., 1986. Particularly in the title essay of this collection, Eco examines tourism from a semiotic perspective with attention to questions of authenticity and what he calls "the absolute fake."

Franklin, Adrian, and Mike Crang. "The Trouble with Tourism and Travel Theory?" Tourist Studies 1, no.1 (2001): 522. A brief overview of tourism as a subject of academic study; attempts to theorize about touristic phenomena.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Grand Tour. London, 1987. A historical study of the European Grand Tour.

Judd, Dennis R., and Susan S. Fainstein, eds. The Tourist City. New Haven, Conn., 1999. A collection of essays on urban tourism that draws attention to the ways that the tourist industry defines, organizes, and commodifies touristic experiences.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley, Calif., 1998. A cultural study of heritage tourism. Especially useful is the essay "Exhibiting Jews," which discusses representations of Jews and Judaism at world's fairs.

MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. 3d ed. Berkeley, Calif., 1999. This is a classic sociological study of tourists and tourism from a structuralist perspective.

Sears, John F. Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century. New York, 1989. A historical study of the emergence of American tourist destinations in the nineteenth century; Sears demonstrates the connection between tourism and American identity.

Sharf, Robert H. "Experience." In Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor, pp. 94116. Chicago, 1998. Sharf discusses the category of "experience" as it relates to religious practices and the academic study of religion.

Smith, Valene L., ed. Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. 2d ed. Philadelphia, 1989. A collection of anthropological essays on tourists and the people who inhabit tourist destinations.

Stowe, William W. Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Princeton, N.J., 1994. A historical and literary analysis of nineteenth-century American tourists in Europe and how their travels and travel writing contributed to personal and collective identities.

Urry, John. The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies. Newbury Park, Calif., 1990. A sociological study of tourism that applies a Foucauldian understanding of "gaze" to the social, historical, economic, and cultural implications of touristic practices.

Warneke, Sara. Images of the Educational Traveller in Early Modern England. New York, 1995. This book examines early modern English travels to the European continent for educational purposes; the conventions of educational travel served as a historical precedent for later practices of tourism.

Thomas S. Bremer (2005)