Spiritual Tourism is the latest buzzword that’s being bandied around the travel industry but what, exactly, does it entail? Christine Retschlag dives into the heart of the matter…

spiritual journeys 2While adrenalin-based holidays boasting a “brag factor” were all the rage several years ago, a new trend has emerged in worldwide travel in which the attention has shifted to matters of the heart and soul. The concept of spiritual tourism is nothing new in some quarters of the world – Muslims have been making the pilgrimage to Mecca for centuries – but in only recently relative times has the western world sought out holidays with more meaning.

Hawaii Tourism Big Island Visitors Bureau Executive Director Ross Birch says the spiritual tourism segment is a ‘natural fit’ for his destination in which ‘mana’ or ‘spirits’ are considered part of the ancient landscape.

“With active volcanoes, we are fortunate to be able to witness earth’s powerful energy force as it creates new land every second. Kilauea volcano, for example, is one of the world’s most near-continually erupting volcanoes. Volcano goddess Pele continues to live in legend, chant and dance,” he says.

“Hawaiians have always had a deep connection with place and nature, and that connection continues to exist today. That sense of belonging and being a part of the spirit of the place continues to draw travellers from all over the world.”

Tourism Authority of Thailand Australia Director Rujiras Chatchalermkit says ‘spiritual beliefs’ are common among Thais and are celebrated through a number of festivals, which attract both locals and tourists including the nationwide Loi Krathong Festival which pays respect to the river goddess. Thailand is also home to many meditation retreats offered through its Buddhist temples.

“Most people who attend meditation retreats, monk chats or yoga retreats are looking for peace of mind and better health,” she says.

“Although we don’t have specific figures (on growth in the spiritual tourism segment), we believe that interest in that area is growing.”

While some destinations and tourism operators embrace the term “spiritual” others believe “authentic” is a more apt description of the new movement.

Intrepid Travel Managing Director James Thornton says his company has been the leader in authentic and sustainable travel since it was established in 1989.

“We design our trips from the grassroots up, which means each trip will have an experienced local leader, transportation is primarily on local transport and we stay in locally-run accommodation. This way, our customers get a more authentic experience and tourism money stays where it belongs – in local pockets,” he says.

“Homestays are a key feature – staying overnight with a family, experiencing their hospitality and learning more about their lives to gain a greater understanding of their culture on the whole.

spiritual journeys 1“We are also incorporating visits to local tribes/Indigenous people more and more. On our Palawan Island Getaway in the Philippines, the group undertakes a trek to have lunch with members of the local Batak tribe – one of about 70 Indigenous people of the Philippines. Or you’ll meet local tribes in the Rabaul region of Papua New Guinea during the Mask Festival on our Expeditions trip.

“We also have a focus on visiting lessvisited places, taking people off the beaten track to see destinations where tourists rarely tread. This can be seen most clearly in our new range of Expedition trips, which were a big success since launching early last year. Half of the trips were completely booked out which just goes to show that people are constantly searching for these truly authentic experiences.

“We are always looking to incorporate places that are starting to open up to tourism. We started going to Jaffna on our Sensational Sri Lanka trip in 2015, an area that was only recently off limits due to the Civil War but which offers travellers beautiful temples and rich history.”

The concept of authentic tourism also resonates strongly with Outrigger Resorts Vice President Corporate Communications Bitsy Kelly.

“Outrigger is a values-led family-owned company which aims to provide an authentic cultural experience in each of the destinations we operate which are Hawaii, Guam, Thailand, Fiji, Mauritius and the Maldives. We have an internal values system that we call Ke Ano Waa, which translates into “The Outrigger Way” and is a celebration of all of our cultural values and traditions of hospitality,” she says.

“We find that travellers do want to give something back to the places and people they visit while on vacation. In Fiji we offer direct-action community tourism projects such as building a meeting bure at Conua School in the Sigatoka Valley in which more than 800 guests assisted during a 14-month period. The feedback has been phenomenal and the construction of a kindergarten will commence in early 2016. Community/cultural tourism is also gaining popularity with groups, associations and corporate and we also offer authentic experiences such as attending a local Sunday church service at a neighbouring village or visiting the district hospital.

“Outrigger strives to provide our guests with not just unique experiences, but experiences that are deeply engaging. Connecting to the place and people when visiting another land is what inspires people to travel and what creates those lasting memories.”

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