Religious tourism: can sacred sites bring economic salvation?

From Japan to Catalonia, holy places can be a draw of high-quality tourism

Sitting serenely among mountains outside the provincial Japanese city of Fukui, Eiheiji temple radiates peace. Visitors to the site — one of two principal temples in the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism — can look out from the near-800 year old temple, watch mist rising from the cedar-covered hillsides, and kid themselves for a second that they’ve found enlightenment.

Or so the authorities in the nearby town, also called Eiheiji, hope. With a new campaign they’re hoping to bring spiritually curious tourists from across Japan and overseas to the temple and its surroundings.

It’s just one example of how communities around the world are seeking to use religious sites as a unique draw for tourists to drive local development.

Eiheiji, Japan: the boutique approach

In Eiheiji, the town is taking a boutique approach to attracting religiously-inclined visitors.

All over the faded open plan offices inhabited by Eiheiji town’s local government officials and its Mayor Hisamitsu Kawai, you’ll find fetching brown posters daubed with traditional calligraphy. The slogan on one reads: “Zen: Do you feel it?”

The marketing campaign is part of a wider attempt to brand the area as a “Zen city”, and it’s a label with some justification. The temple was founded by Dogen Zenji, who also launched the Soto tradition which today is the largest of Japan’s three Zen schools.

Once, the area’s religious significance alone was enough to bring busload after busload of tourists and worshippers. But Japan’s overall population is slumping and interest in Buddhism is also on a downward spiral — one 2015 prediction warned that 40% of temples could close by 2040.

However, while your average Japanese family may now be less likely to make a pilgrimage to even a historic temple like Eiheiji, Kawai spots an opportunity to attract a different class of tourist looking for peace, quiet and spirituality.

The town and prefectural governments are both contributing to redevelopment works aimed at making the land in front of the temple more accessible and effective. Mori Building Company, a major property developer, is also involved in reworking the site.

And a new 18 room hotel in the temple grounds, managed by Japanese tourism giant Fujita Kanko and opening in July, will let visitors get an enviable level of access to the secluded temple.

The hotel will allow ordinary tourists not only to spend the night in the tranquility of the cedar forests — unusual for those not engaged in a formal program of study at the temple — but to experience the famously demanding Zazen meditation practice in its halls. They also have the option of eating a special vegan menu overseen by the temple’s master chef.

The hope is that the unique experience will attract discerning tourists not only from across Japan, but overseas too — including, Kawai said, Zen-obsessed Silicon Valley — without overcrowding the tiny town or unduly disturbing the core training work of the temple’s monks.

Manresa, Spain: Partnerships for tourism at scale

Manresa, a small city in the Spanish region of Catalonia, enjoyed a stint as one of the country’s great industrial powerhouses in the 19th century, with a thriving textiles industry. But while a construction boom in the late 20th and early 21st centuries helped to hold up Manresa’s economy amid textiles decline, it was hard hit by the financial crisis of 2008.

Now, write Sonia Puyol of Manresa City Council and Ramon Canal of the Autonomous University of Barcelona in the book Managing Religious Tourism, the city has a plan to boost its economy as it heads towards a key date in 2022. Unlike Eiheiji’s understated approach, Manresa’s plan is all about getting the most out of a large projected rise in footfall.

The year 2022 will mark half a millennium since Ignatius of Loyola, the (since-beatified) founder of the Jesuit order, arrived in the city as a pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem. Stuck in Manresa for a year thanks to a plague outbreak, Ignatius underwent a spiritual journey that led him to write his most famous work and, later, found the religious order that ensured his legacy.

The Ignatian Way, a pilgrim route which ends at Manresa, is expected to attract 100,000 tourists annually by 2022. Project Manresa 2022 was launched in 2014 as an attempt to use the anniversary for economic development in the city, which boasts 22 heritage sites associated with St Ignatius.

The scheme has brought together the public, private and third sectors on projects ranging from new branding for the city to a new music festival, Sounds of the Way. A steering committee made up of public and private sector experts meets every two weeks to drive the project along.

According to Canal and Puyol: “the renowned figure of St Ignatius of Loyola is seen as a mighty engine to boost pilgrimage and religious tourism in a city that until not so long ago was predominantly industrial.”

It’s hard to obtain an exact figure for the size of the religious tourism market across the world, but the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (WTO) calls visiting sacred places “one of the major travel motivations” worldwide.

Tapping into that flow can be a powerful way for economically struggling communities to boost development. But doing so requires government to find a way to navigate the complex web of interests involved in preserving and promoting these sites — from private sector operators and developers, to locals and religious communities themselves. — Josh Lowe

(Picture Credit: Flickr/Tak H)

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