Every year, three to five million people visit Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, more than the amount of tourists at all five of Utah’s state parks combined! Clearly, religious tourism is a massive industry in the state, but what about in other parts of the world? According to the Huffington Post, there are popular religious tourist locations in India, France, and Jerusalem, to name only a few. One of the oldest travel institutions, religious tourism is growing in importance and in scope every year.
This trend was actually commented on some years ago by BYU Geography professor Daniel Olsen, who noted that religious sites were being transformed into tourist sites by the marketing efforts of various promotional agencies. This process, in part, tended to change the meaning of sacred sites from that of worship and contemplation to that of leisure, in turn encouraging leisure- and education-oriented visitors and activities. Is this a good thing? What are the effects of it? Dr. Olsen says that commercialization of religious sites can lead to conflict between those who would commodify it—the tourism and government administrators—and the ecclesiastical leaders who would have it remain holy ground.
Tibet’s Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, the country’s holiest site, is a good example of this, says Simon Denyer of the Washington Post. Many Asian visitors are flocking to it, creating a tourism boom for Tibet, but many headaches for those actually attending the temple: “Some are respectful of what they are seeing,” says Denyer, but Tibetans on social media complain of cameras thrust in pilgrims’ faces and of sacred prayer flags trampled underfoot. On a recent visit, one tour guide committed a grave breach of religious etiquette by walking the wrong way around a statue of Buddha. At the landmark Potala Palace, a tourist stood beside a sign banning photographs, taking a photo, while a Tibetan tour guide expressed exasperation at how little Han tourists knew or understood.” Natives have taken to social media to gripe about the disrespect the tourism has brought: holy flags are being trampled and pilgrims are having cameras pushed in their faces. People are also taking selfies in the sacred space. Truly, “some of the temple’s magic [has] seem[ed] to dissipate,” says noted Tibetan writer Woser.
Dr. Olsen offers a solution: “Really, what I want to see happen is stakeholders in the tourism industry engage with religious site managers and leaders of religious faiths and make them important stakeholders in the decision-making process when it comes to tourism marketing and promotion as well as the development of tourist experiences at a destination.” By doing this, religions would be able to promote themselves in their desired manner and the economy would be bolstered. Presenting their faith in a respectful atmosphere would be a win-win for all parties involved.
Dr. Olsen will, in fact, publish a book on the subject, titled Religious Pilgrimage Routes and Trails, co-authored with A. Trono, in 2017. Have You Ever Visited a Religious Site?