“The purpose of a pilgrimage is about setting aside a long period of time in which the only focus is the matters of the soul. Many believe a pilgrimage is about going away but it isn’t; it is about coming home. Those who choose to go on pilgrimage have already ventured away from themselves, and now set out in a longing to journey back to who they are.” – L.M. Browning.
Travelling has a way of humbling a person and broadens one’s perspective in multiple ways. People travel for various reasons: To escape a mundane life; to relax and unwind; to explore and seek adventure; for work and business opportunities; to learn something new and challenge oneself or celebrate and visit loved ones. But there is another motivation for travel that is as old as time itself and one which encourages vast masses to make frequent journeys. Religious tourism – or faith tourism – as it is sometimes referred to, is a type of tourism where individuals or masses of people travel with a desire to participate in religious celebrations and ceremonies, to learn more about centres of worship and relics, to join fellowships or make pilgrimage to worship saints.
Religious tourists seek a deeper appreciation of faith or connection to spirituality by joining fellowships in prayer and often travelling long distances to holy sites around the world. The connected modern world has meant that more religious tourists are able to visit holy cities than ever before. In the western world, cities such as Jerusalem, Rome and Mecca attract millions of visitors every year, including the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, which attracts over two million visitors over five days, and the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in India, which attracts over 100 million pilgrims over a fifty-five day period. According to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), an estimated 300 to 330 million pilgrims visit the world’s main religious sites every year. The Asia-Pacific region can be considered the world’s religious centre, with sixty percent of religious journeys taking place in Asia, compared to forty percent in Europe out of the six hundred million religious voyages worldwide. (Source: www2.unwto.org)
Religious travel is not only centred around pilgrimages or holy destinations but it also encompasses faith-based activities such as weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and conventions. It is one of the fastest growing segments of travel today, with religious travel worldwide being estimated at a value of US$18 billion and approximately 300 million travellers. Many faith-based travellers travel in groups rather than as individuals and the numbers are set to increase. It is also worth noting that economic fluctuations do not necessarily sway committed faith-based travellers, who are somewhat obligated to travel and will have saved and prepared for religious or spiritual experiences in advance and will fulfil their voyages regardless of the conditions of a particular economy. This is particularly applicable to developing countries with unstable economies, where faith-based travel can provide a lifeline of income to the economy. (Source: www.tourismandmore.com)
A travel trend that is increasing in popularity is the art of yoga instruction and ‘soul retreats,’ where travellers set time aside to journey to India or Bali to learn the practise and cleanse the soul. The health and wellness travel trend is a sub-category of religious travel, because the end-goal is aligned with spiritual health.
According to research from the Global Wellness Institute, wellness travel is a US$489 billion global market. (Source: www.bookyogaretreats.com)
Luxury health and wellness retreats offering yoga and detox programmes are dotted around the coastline in Morocco and the tourism industry is fast-tracking packages centred on healthy holidays, including healthier menu options and personalising tours to accommodate religious places of interest when booking for the individual or group. Tour operators such as Thompsons Africa offer international religious pilgrimages, including packages to suit various religious groups. (Source: www.thompsonsafrica.com)
Health and wellness is now a motivating factor in travel trends and holidays aimed at health (and spirituality) are set to become one of the primary reasons for travel. Spiritual retreats are offering life-coaching and alternative healing therapy alongside yoga, reiki and light therapy. (Source: www.healthandfitnesstravel.com) Tanzania, world renowned for its spectacular wildlife and home to Africa’s highest mountain, is becoming popular for wellness travellers wishing to combine a safari with yoga practise. Yoga holiday packages are widely available at many of the top establishments that offer standard and luxury options alongside yoga teacher training, or combining yoga and diving packages at popular resorts in Zanzibar. (Source: www.yogazanzibar.com)
On the African continent, religious travel is as important to various communities as it is to the economy. The African continent is considered by many to be the origin of mankind and is often referred to as ‘The Cradle of Mankind.’ This is based on the fossil discovery in 1924 in South Africa that led scientists to believe that the earliest human ancestors were indeed, found in Africa. An excerpt from evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin’s book titled, ‘The Descent of Man’ in 1871 suggests that it is ‘probable’ that Africa is the cradle of humans because of the link between the native chimpanzees and gorillas as human’s closest relative species. For those in favour of Darwin’s theory, all other mankind on earth would have originated, at some point in time, from Africa. East Africa is also considered by some to be the Cradle of Mankind, largely due to archaeological and fossilised remains that have been found in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and Koobi Fora in Kenya. While many theories can be found on the subject, most scientists agree that mankind originated from the vast African continent. (Source: www.smithsonianmag.com)
When one considers that there are a number of religions in Africa, large numbers of followers from all over the world travel to regions for their various personal fulfilment needs. The African continent has an ancient spiritual and religious background, both in architecture and in its rich history. Ethiopia is home to eleven monolithic cave churches that can be found in the mountains of Lalibela – one of the areas holiest cities. The Rock-Hewn Churches, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are carved out of the rocks and they are an important Christian pilgrimage site for devotion and worship. This 13th century ‘New Jerusalem’ was built when Christian pilgrimages were denied access to their holy land. The site hosts a large community of monks and priests and it attracts many pilgrims who celebrate the Ethiopian Christian calendar. One of the reasons why Ethiopia is so popular for tourists and faith-travellers is that it has the greatest number of World Heritage Sites on the African continent.
Axum is the holiest city in Ethiopia, and it was formerly the capital of the fourth century Axumite Empire, one of the earliest Christian kingdoms in the world. Considered by many as the ‘spiritual heart of the country,’ the Ethiopian Orthodox and Sunni Muslim communities celebrate the site as an important pilgrimage and national organisations and community groups have undertaken initiatives to preserve the cultural heritage. In 2007, the Ethiopian National Museum opened Axum’s Archaeological Museum, in conjunction with several active archaeological sites, which attract archaeologists, pilgrims and tourists from all over the world and the site continues to reveal important information about the ancient civilisation. Hundreds of thousands of people from around the globe travel to Axum annually to see the Chapel of the Tablet, which is believed to house Ethiopia’s most sacred artefact, the Ark of the Covenant.
Every year in January, during the feast of the Epiphany called ‘Timkat,’ replicas of the Ark of the Covenant are draped in colourful cloths and are paraded through the streets, followed by masses of worshipers and tourists. Rare, preserved manuscripts, crosses and crowns are displayed in the church of St. Mary of Zion. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church allows the public to view the ancient artefacts in the museum and the ruins of ancient tombs, palaces and churches are one of the reasons why it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. (Source: www.whc.unesco.org)
Uganda is a country rich in diverse religion, with Christianity and Islam being the most widely professed religions. The northern and west area is dominated by Roman Catholics, whilst the Iganga District in the east holds the highest percentage of Muslims. Uganda has hosted three Popes on apostolic visits, and tour companies such as Uganda safaris arrange tours to the Munyonyo catholic martyrs shrine, one which received great publicity after the visit of the Pope. The Munyonyo Church is one of the tallest buildings in the country, standing forty-five meters tall with an eighteen meter high crucifix. The Namugongo martyrs shrine is the most well-known place of pilgrimage in Uganda, where thousands of devoted followers travel long distances to honour fallen martyrs on Uganda’s Martyrs Day. The Uganda National Mosque is located at Kampala Hill and can seat close to twenty thousand worshipers at a time. Peacock Tours and Travel Ltd. – one of Nigeria’s main tour operators with offices in the UK and South Africa – is invested in promoting the Uganda Martyrs to Nigerian pilgrims to attract religious tourists.
The Uganda Tourism Board recently hosted two representatives from the large travel company to experience the Uganda pilgrimage and promote Ugandan religious tourism to international pilgrims. Deputy Chief Executive Officer for Uganda Tourism Board, John Ssempebwa announced, “From the previous tourism exhibition engagements, we are using our Pan African channels to showcase Uganda’s tourism. The Uganda Martyrs are a great opportunity to attract African and global pilgrims into Uganda through the year.” (Source: www.chimpreports.com)
Over a million pilgrims travel to the region annually from all corners of Africa and abroad, some Africans travel by foot for as long as two weeks; others by various modes of transport. The Martyrs Day celebration is Uganda’s signature tourism event and considered one of Africa’s largest pilgrimage events. Visitors hail from Nairobi; Kigali; Bujumbura and Mwanza in East Africa, as well as from Nigeria; South Africa and abroad – Italy, the United States of America; India and Brazil. The Uganda Tourism Board is making efforts to increase religious tourism by including the Martyrs Trail, which visits various sites of interest and promotes sustainable tourism to local communities benefiting from the influx of tourists. The celebrated church sits adjacent to a large park and pond, where pilgrims will often wash or drink water as it is viewed as a holy source where the martyrs’ blood was washed.
A particularly significant Christian church is the Yamoussoukro Basilica, which stands one hundred and fifty-eight meters high in the city of Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire. Its interior capacity holds eighteen-thousand people, with a capacity to hold another three-hundred thousand people in the outside section. Also known as ‘Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro Basilica,’ it is the world’s largest Christian church and surpassed St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican when it was completed in 1989. It is highly frequented by pilgrims and both Catholics and locals take great pride in its stature and it has become a national symbol of the Ivory Coast. It is now one of the most popular Christian pilgrimage sites in West Africa and is the largest church in Africa. Not only is it an attraction for religious travellers but for tourists alike, and the tourism influx is of paramount importance to improve local infrastructure and the economy.
The Masjid Hassan II mosque in Casablanca is one of the most influential mosques of the 20th century, attracting millions of tourists to North Africa. As the national mosque, it is the largest mosque in Africa and second-largest in the world, only slightly smaller than the Masjid Al-Haram mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The building is dwarfed by a seven-hundred foot tall minaret and sections of glass floors built over the ocean allow worshipers to see waves beneath them as they follow in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Egypt is also home to one of the world’s most famous monasteries, The Monastery of Saint Anthony, which is built in the depths of the Red Sea Mountains. It can be traced back to the 4th century, and it includes the Church of St. Anthony, the Church of the Apostles, the Church of the Virgin, the New Church and the Fort. An accompanying library boasts thousands of manuscripts and a museum, and guided tours are offered to tourists to learn the life of the monks and history of the church. (Source: www.africa.com)
Nigeria is exploring religion in the development of the tourism industry, particularly with the expansion of hotels and other businesses catering to religious travellers. The country is strategically positioning itself to cater to religion as an attractive force for tourists and religion. The main religions in Nigeria are Christianity and Islam, and government and tour companies are promoting tourism via festivals and programmes. TB Joshua is the primary tourism resource for West Africa, particularly Nigeria, where the majority of tourists attend the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN). It is evident that religious tourism is instrumental in economic revival, as the pastor of the church has been echoed as the nations ‘biggest tourist attraction,’ one which is not seasonal and attracts visitors at any time of the year. The church attracts huge numbers of worshipers despite general leisure tourism numbers having declined in the last year.
South Africa is a cosmopolitan melting pot comprised of different cultures and religions that make up its ‘rainbow nation.’ There are three main religions in the area, notably Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, but there are also popular Buddhist retreats and a large Jewish community. The Buddhist Retreat in the Ixopo region of Kwazulu Natal is popular for meditation, where visitors use the secluded space to meditate and numerous festivals and ‘new age gatherings’ take place near to the area. The Nan Hua Buddhist Temple in Bronkhorstspruit, Johannesburg is allegedly the largest of its kind in Africa. The impressive architecture alone attracts many visitors for day outings, and it is open to the public to book for retreats and to celebrate special occasions such as the Chinese New Year and Buddha’s birthday. The Chinese Buddhist Centre developed as an educational and cultural complex with an ethos to engage with and assist communities via outreaches and charitable work. This particular non-profit religious centre operates on donations and attracts visitors from all over Africa, as well as interns who commit to a three-year period of study at the temple.
There are many sites where ancient rock paintings and carvings can be found that are attributed to the San Bushmen, and sacred sites are visited by leisure and religious tourists from all over the world. The nomadic Khoisan are the oldest surviving culture in Africa and Battle Cave in the Drakensberg’s Injasuti Valley is one such place where tourists flock to view the impressive paintings. There are ingrained spiritual beliefs instilled in many of the cultures in Africa, where traditional ceremonies and rituals are still practiced today. There are various historic Christian churches in South Africa, including St Georges Cathedral in Cape Town, which dates back to 1834 and is the place where Archbishop Tutu led a peaceful mass resistance against Apartheid. The Archbishop is world-renowned and a Nobel Laureate. One of the oldest synagogues in the Southern Hemisphere can be found in Cape Town’s Gardens area. The ‘Gardens Shul’ was founded in 1841 and it’s architecture and nearby Jewish Museum draws large numbers of the Jewish communities to these iconic sites.
South Africa has a large Islam community, particularly in the Western Cape and Durban. The Masjid-ul-quds is an iconic place of worship in Cape Town and tours are available to visit the holy burial sites, known as ‘kramats’ or ‘mazaars.’ Over thirty of these sacred sites can be found in the region, and the Bo Kaap neighbourhood attracts visitors from all over the world to photograph the colourful splendour. There are various Islamic burial sites in and around Cape Town, including the tombs of Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar in the dunes near Macassar Beach and Sheikh Sayed Abdurahman Maturu of Jafet on Robben Island. The impressive Jumma Musjid Mosque and Riverside Musjid in Durban serve the Muslim community and people travel long distances to worship.
Thousands of people visit the Darga every month, which is a famous landmark in Durban and the surrounding businesses, schools and community centres have played a role in uplifting the community and Durban economy as a whole. Cultural events and religious festivals are held regularly and the prayers are attended by vast crowds. Durban also supports a large population of Indians, and there are many Hindu sites for worship. The Temple of Understanding and the Sri Ambalavanar Alayam Second River Temple, a national monument, are visited by local and international tourists and worshipers and a popular Johannesburg-based museum is Satyagraha House, the house where Mahatma Gandhi lived in 1908. The museum is accompanied by a guesthouse for visitors that wish to leisurely tour the heritage site and surrounding areas. (Source: www.africansafaris.com)
In the Limpopo province, the religious sites of Ha-Mavhunga village, the pilgrimage site of the United African Apostolic Church (UAAC) and Moria village, the pilgrimage site of Zion Christian Church (ZCC), attracts between three and five million pilgrims and tourists annually over the Easter weekend. The ZCC members constitute the largest religious group in Southern Africa, with a combined membership of approximately eight million members.
Today, religious tourism is a segmented market with many niches and sub-categories when compared to the major pilgrimages since the dawn of mankind. Religious tourism does not solely depend on a location as a holy destination where pilgrims will gather; it includes humanitarian travel; backpacking and spiritual courses; volunteer experiences and retreats; monastery visits and cleansing ceremonies; faith-based camps and courses, amongst others. Faith-based travel attracts people from all demographics and economic sectors and cannot be limited to one segment of the market.
In recent years, it has increased in popularity for individual leisure travellers seeking a spiritual awakening and to understand their religion through a tangible and holistic experience, to gather meaning about their religious beliefs, and to connect personally to what they feel is a holy experience and not necessarily a holy place. Religious tourism is possibly one of the most important sources of income in many regions, with the benefits trickling down into various streams including accommodation, transportation, food and beverage and retail avenues and largely affecting the economy as a whole. Through better cooperation of the private and public sector, religious tourism is a sector that must be developed in order to tap into a market that will benefit the tourism value chain.
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Source: Nomad Africa Magazine