The Future of Spiritual Tourism in Asia

The plain of Bagan at sunset, Myanmar
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Discussions from the International Conference on Spiritual Tourism for Sustainable Development, Vietnam, November 21–22.

By Imtiaz Muqbil

Spirituality is deeply interwoven into the fabric of Asia and, by extension, in the promotion of travel and tourism. A United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) International Conference on Spiritual Tourism for Sustainable Development, organized in Vietnam’s Ninh Binh province on November 21–22, 2013, brought together industry leaders to discuss the way forward for this soon-to-boom niche market.

The following five powerful and thought-provoking comments best reflected the prevailing situation, and the ideas expressed in them will play a major role in shaping the future of spiritual tourism and addressing the challenges ahead.

Marina Diotallevi
“Humanity’s cultural heritage, which also includes expressions of spirituality and living culture, has long been a key motive for global travel. The preservation of these assets is fundamental to maintaining the cultural diversity and uniqueness of destinations, communities and individuals in the face of growing globalization. The responsible and sustainable use of natural and cultural assets in the development of spiritual tourism brings with it many benefits and can serve as a catalyst for cultural revitalization, reproduction and long-term development of the destinations involved. Whilst cultural wealth may render these destinations appealing, a massive and uncontrolled influx of tourists can destabilize what are often fragile communities.

Therefore, in order to minimize any negative impacts, it is imperative that the tourism sector acts in close collaboration with tradition bearers to ensure that spiritual tourism is based on mutual respect, cultural sensitivity and the responsible behavior of all stakeholders, including visitors. Building on the UNWTO’s first Study on Tourism and Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), and featuring specific good practices, this presentation will consider the links between spiritual tourism and ICH and the conditions necessary for tourism development which both ensures the preservation of spirituality and living traditions of local communities, and enables a unique tourist experience.”

Marina Diotallevi
Program Manager, Ethics and Social Dimensions of Tourism, UN World Tourism Organization

I Gede Ardika
“Uncontrolled tourism development has a tendency to ruin our environment and our culture. The tourism development strategy adopted in some parts of the world, heavily orientated towards physical output, almost neglects the intangible aspects of human life. Damage to the natural environment and socio-cultural disorientation of local communities are just some effects of physical output orientated development. Essentially, these problems are rooted in the absence of the vital elements of sustainable tourism, namely spirituality and ethics, as well as in the inability to differentiate between need and greed. Whilst tourism is mainly considered in terms of leisure purposes, it has also developed into a vehicle for improving the quality of life of all parties involved, and is a vital force for the promotion of international understanding and peace. Quality of life is related to ‘happiness’ as a conceptual way of life.”

I Gede Ardika
University Professor, Member of the World Tourism Committee on Tourism Ethics, Former Minister of Tourism and Culture of Indonesia

Dr. Duong Bich Hanh
“Vietnam, home to a wealth of natural and cultural assets, including seven World Heritage sites, has seen major growth in tourism in recent years. This poses a number of challenges. First, some cultural assets are over-exploited, and there are weak mechanisms in place for protecting and conserving them; as a result, economic development threatens to negatively impact both heritage and spiritual traditions. Second, cultural assets in some areas have not yet been fully assessed to determine their full potential for, and relationship to, tourism growth. Finally, local communities that live in and around heritage sites and possess other forms of cultural assets do not benefit much from tourism and have little means of protecting themselves and transferring their traditional knowledge and spiritual beliefs to younger generations.

Since 2009, UNESCO has supported Vietnam in response to the urgent need to address these challenges by developing a comprehensive spiritual and cultural tourism strategy that capitalizes on the values of cultural heritage for economic development while ensuring its protection and conservation. The program’s focus since 2009 was in Quang Nam province, where there are two World Cultural Heritage sites, Hoi An and My Son, and the Cham Island Biosphere Reserve. With UNESCO-provided tools and guidelines, Quang Nam authorities developed, during a hands-on process involving dialogue with participation from stakeholders and local community members, an integrated cultural tourism strategy which identified sustainable ways and concrete actions to maximize the integration of cultural heritage into tourism development, maintaining quality growth of tourism while protecting spirituality and allowing local heritage to thrive.

This strategy was closely linked to each of the Visitor Management Plans of the three major protected areas in the province. Further support was provided to strengthen the interpretation and promotion of the World Heritage sites and the surrounding areas, which results in tourists’ better experiences and deeper engagement with the local communities, at the same time ensuring that local people gain an adequate share from the tourism development.”

Dr. Duong Bich Hanh
Culture Program Coordinator, UNESCO Office in Vietnam

Faruk Pekin
“Nowadays we are talking about spiritual tourism, another sub-title of cultural tourism.’ Spiritual tourism is not a part of religious tourism. It is a journey and an experience, but not a destination. For a Hindu, to attend kumbh mela activities is a subject of religious tourism, but for a non-Hindu it is subject of spiritual tourism. Spiritual tourism is going to be a tourist phenomenon of the 21st century, well ahead of the theorists of the tourism industry. Furthermore, the meanings of concepts such as spirituality and secularism are also changing day by day. For the last 30 years, many great sacred locations have been visited by groups of various size, as well as individuals from different social classes and of different professions.

Whatever the reasons are, marketing potential is growing fast for spiritual tourism. Millions of foreigners or domestic travellers are looking for healing activities such as yoga, Ayurveda, and meditation classes, spending their vacations visiting sacred places, trying to enlighten and dignify soul, body and mind, looking for authentic multi-faith cultural activities, trying to rediscover the revitalizing powers of nature, and seeking cultural, environmental, and ecological consciousness.”

Faruk Pekin
CEO FEST Travel, Turkey

Amitava Bhattacharya
“Although tourism has been growing rapidly, much remains to be done for it to be ‘value’ rather than ‘profit’ driven; it must be inclusive, respectful, sustainable and compliant with international standards of responsible and ethical tourism. Tourism also often fails to address environmental considerations, and hence we are left helpless when disasters such as the Uttrakhand flooding (India) occur. Spiritual tourism destination planners and managers need to be very careful in addressing all of these points, especially the carrying capacity, the involvement of people and the environmental issues.

Worldwide tourism talks of relating the sector’s objective to Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), however, the industry hasn’t yet done enough to meet such aims. Thus, even after such extensive growth, it fails to be recognized as a ‘critical industry’, capable of meeting development needs. We must take steps to mobilize local communities, involving them in tourism development, and invest in soft skills and community culture. Often, in the name of archaeological work, local communities are displaced and thus tourism development causes local annoyance and is regarded as ‘external’. It is important to invest in communities, helping them to develop their culture and ownership of local tourism, preparing them for handling tourists. After all, tourism may have the greatest potential to foster mutual respect between visitors, communities and countries, contributing to national development, international growth and peace.”

Amitava Bhattacharya
Founder and Director, Banglanatak.com, India

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