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.
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.”
Program Manager, Ethics and Social Dimensions of Tourism, UN World Tourism Organization
I Gede Ardika
University Professor, Member of the World Tourism Committee on Tourism Ethics, Former Minister of Tourism and Culture of Indonesia
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
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.”
CEO FEST Travel, Turkey
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.”
Founder and Director, Banglanatak.com, India