The global religious travel market is a nearly $20 billion-per-year industry, with trips of the spirit in a strong period of ascendancy. Millions of the faithful, the skeptical or the curious are embarking on journeys to the world's most mystically imbued places. Be it a weekend stay at a working Buddhist monastery, an excursion to discover your Native American spirit animal or a two-week living Bible trip with your local congregation, flocks of people are integrating their travel experiences with a spiritual bent.
Is a religious trip right for you?
Post Your Religious Travel Questions
The Pilgrim: Who's Going
"Meaningful," "spiritual" and "religious" travel may be little more than modern catch phrases, but travelers have been making pilgrimages throughout history. From time immemorial, religious travel has been about celebrating and solidifying one's faith, by means of fellowship, charity, mindfulness or solitude! In the 16th century, Spanish Jesuits traveled to Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina to establish missions among the native people (though it must be said that their colonial pursuits were ultimately unwelcomed; the Jesuits were expelled in the mid-18th century). Buddhist hermits made the journey to spend long periods in caves meditating. As part of coming-of-age rites, many African tribes sent their young males off on "spirit quests"; often painful or frightening, this initiation into adulthood was nonetheless a necessary trip.
Though the stakes might not be as high today -- risking life and limb to cross the Atlantic and set up shop among a potentially hostile people -- religious travel forges on. Modern church/synagogue/mosque group trips are omnipresent, whether in the form of volunteer vacations or visits to holy sites.
Major tour packagers and operators have realized the benefits (read: potential profits) of offering faith-geared tours. Templeton Tours, a Christian tour company, provides land and cruise travel to Alaska, Hawaii, the Holy Land and more. On their cruises, no alcohol is served, the casino is replaced with a Christian bookstore and gospel groups provide evening entertainment. Globus, one of the world's largest tour operators, has a section devoted to faith-based travel; its itineraries include a "Journey Through the Holy Land" package and a "Lourdes & Shrines of France" tour. Vacations to Go, a travel package consolidator, offers significant discounts on religious tours for groups such as church congregations.
For travelers who don't consider themselves religious, the reasons for taking a spiritually grounded trip are more broadly academic. Many independent-minded travelers are fascinated by the prospect of exploring the cultural and historical traditions of an ancient place. Even absent true belief, the stunning drip-tower roofs of Angkor Wat or the Aboriginal creation story tied to Australia's Uluru (Ayers Rock) inspire a sense of reverence. And modern tourist infrastructure makes accessing these places -- whatever your purpose -- easier than ever.
Find Vacation Packages
The Vision Quest: Where to Journey
Options are as far ranging as the cosmos, going beyond standard religious destinations such as the Vatican, Jerusalem, Egypt and the Yucatan. While we freely admit there's nothing "standard" about the Pyramids of Giza or the Sistine Chapel, there are many other unique, less traveled destinations in which to conduct your spiritual search. In any place where inhabitants lived spiritual lives, there is an associated tourist industry. What else is available?
For more solitary types who prefer peaceful contemplation in idyllic surroundings over, say, the hustle of Jerusalem's Old City or the dusty masses of Cairo, there are plenty of more quietly reflective options. Many Buddhist monasteries throughout the world -- Asia, Europe and here in the United States (see resource section) -- have programs that let travelers lead a monk's life for a day or a week. Spend the morning in meditation, enjoy the traditional midday meal in silence, and then discuss the Dharma, nature's underlying order, with fellow monks. Though renouncing all worldly possessions is not required for such stays, the more serious offerings may include long hours of meditation, which can be quite painful on the knees.