Ever since humans walked the Earth, we have been traveling.
Even in times of plenty, with the internet at our fingertips, we are still driven to seek out tactile experiences.
Whether it’s seeing family and friends, visiting museums, or lying on the beach, the hope is to be transformed – to return home replenished, rested, or better informed.
There is also a cohort of travelers who want more.
They are on a spiritual journey, similar to a pilgrimage, but deeper and more immersive.
One of them is Irina Morrison. A few years ago, she embarked on the Mystic Express, a tour of Indian temples and ashrams. It changed his life.
“Growing up in a non-religious environment, I’ve always been skeptical and a little resentful of churches or religious or faith leaders,” she says. “This trip was a complete game-changer.”
For two weeks, Irina visited temples, met with Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist spiritual leaders.
“It was much deeper than just learning the basics of the Hindu religion or just going to a temple to observe what the Hindu temple is like,” she says.
“The opportunity to meet these leaders and have this intimate moment with them is what changed my life.
Irina could have backpacked through India’s spiritual sites, 1970s style, but she says it wouldn’t have been the same.
“One particular ashram isn’t even open to the public,” she says.
“The owner is a high level spiritual leader and speaks at the United Nations. I could never, on my own, find him and his ashram and be able to register or be invited.”
From monastic immersions to the spiritual network
The doors to these sacred places were opened to Irina by a group called World Weavers, co-founded by Australian Ben Bowler.
In 2006, Bowler traveled to the Thailand-Burma border with his then-wife, Jildou Brouwer, to work with a Canadian NGO called Free School.
He became fascinated by the cross-cultural tapestry of religion and spirituality. From there was born the idea of Monk for a Month.
With the blessing and guidance of local religious leaders, they would invite small groups of people from all over the world to come and immerse themselves in a monastery for up to four weeks.
“People would take the dresses and do the whole thing… [they were given] a very authentic ordination as a novice monk.”
The idea was such a hit that they soon teamed up with other faith leaders to offer experiences such as Muslim for a Month in Turkey and Rastafarian for a Month in Ethiopia.
“There were a number of these different programs that worked,” Bowler says.
“And from there a network grew with all these amazing spiritual leaders. It was amazing, a beautiful thing.”
Since then, demand for spiritual tourism has grown steadily, and Bowler says it shows no signs of slowing down.
“There’s a whole kind of crisis and turmoil, reordering of the meaning of life, and I think in the next five years we’ll definitely see a huge boom in this space.”
Tourism as a social force
Freya Higgins-Desbiolles agrees with him. She is a specialist in tourism management at the University of South Australia and has a particular interest in tourism as a social force.
In recent decades, she says, the tourism industry has not focused on spiritual travelers, as they tend to be low-impact visitors, preferring to stay in temples and inns, spending little money. ‘money.
But she says the economic and social benefits have enormous potential that goes far beyond personal growth.
“I think the pandemic might actually change some mindsets,” she says.
Dr Higgins-Desbiolles experienced her own transformation many years ago when she first left the United States, touring with Aboriginal cultural leaders in South Australia.
“It really reshaped my whole schedule,” she says.
“What they are trying to do is change us non-Indigenous Australians so that we can appreciate their spiritual connection to the country, and thus enable them to protect and maintain it.
“If we really want to appreciate this country and appreciate the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge of this country, that comes from learning these stories.”
An old style of “luxury”
But is tourism the best way to communicate a spiritual connection to the country?
Anne Poelina, a Nyikina Warrwa woman from the Kimberley region of WA, thinks it has great potential – particularly what she describes as “luxury tourism”.
Professor Poelina is the director of Madjoula, a non-profit Aboriginal organization in Fitzroy Crossing.
“It focuses on our environment as a living system, which holds memories of the past into the future.”
She says we must respect and value the ancient spirituality that Indigenous peoples have invested in through their stewardship and love of country.
“This creates links to both the management and protection of landscapes and ecosystems as vital elements of heritage protection and social and spiritual development.”
Professor Poelina hopes the tourism industry will encourage ‘good faith’ sharing, which asks the visitor to exchange a moral contract with themselves.
“We want the visitor to focus on their own values and ethics, and leave with a sense of obligation and concern for the people and the River Country.”
Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says industry can also help by providing education, regulation and clear labelling.
“People need to know they paid for an experience that was created or endorsed by traditional owners,” she says.
Create a banquet of spiritual riches
Ben Bowler agrees that partnership with local authorities and cultural leaders is essential.
“You’ll never avoid criticism if you do something large scale in this space that involves spirituality, religion and money,” he says.
“The answer is to make sure the advice comes from local cultural authorities. That’s very true in Aboriginal Australia, and very true in a religious context.”
These days, Bowler is focusing her time and energy on a nonprofit called Unity Earth and, like everyone else, is considering what a post-COVID business looks like.
With a major event scheduled for Global Unity Week in Australia this year, they are exploring a hybrid of virtual and real festivals and cultural events, as opposed to intimate spiritual immersions.
“I think in an age of tribalism and fundamentalism, it’s probably more interesting from a philosophical point of view to present a banquet of spiritual riches for the enjoyment of people, rather than a single tradition, which which can reinforce the idea that one is better than another,” Bowler said. .
“[The question for] our whole future as humanity, how do we come to live together?”, explains Dr Higgins-Desbiolles.
“We have religious conflicts that come from people becoming very isolated and ethno-nationalistic in their religious faith.
“Spiritual tourism teaches us about relationship and those connections.”