Religious Tourism: An USD$18 Billion Industry?

In the grand tradition of planning vacations to places where people have met their tragic ends—Pyramid of Giza, Auschwitz, the ruins of Pompeii—one of the oldest forms of tourism is taking the continent by storm.

In a seemingly faithless climate, where secular media has questioned and swayed the very core of religion, comes a uniquely growing trend that could be beneficial to Africa’s collective economy. Whether you are seeking spiritual enlightenment or a contingency to discover the religious and often lesser known sites, faith-based tourism is growing in numbers. The journey to finding oneself, sharing one’s belief or receiving providence is not as affordable as should be the case.

Many a traveller have saved for months and even years to embrace the spirit behind one’s faith. Mission-based, humanitarian trips such as World Race have contributed to hundreds of travellers each year touring to countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Kenya. For 11 months, groups of young and impressionable travellers move from country to country, feeding the homeless, building shelters and sharing their beliefs. Per person, this 11 month crusade to inner peace costs a staggering USD$19,200 which is fund raised socially.

Some churches in Nigeria, West Africa can hold over 200,000 worshippers and, with their supplement business empires, constitute a significant section of the economy, employing tens of thousands of people and drawing in large amounts of tourist dollars. But how much of the half a trillion GDP they make up, is difficult to determine, since the churches are, like Africa’s oil sector, a largely opaque entity.

And you would imagine these passionate travellers are older, set in their careers and looking to mix a restful vacation with a faith bolstering experience. You’d imagine wrong. There has been a shift in the type of traveller into Africa, not only are they much younger, but they are drawn to self awareness through spiritual guidance.

Indeed – they could be part of an elaborate mission trip into the middle of a rural village or they could be singing praise songs at a mega church evangelism conference. David Frost, CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA) said 46% of international arrivals into South Africa were between the ages of 18 and 35. Be that as it may, faith in itself can mean different things to different people. Just ask the tens of thousands who flock to TB Joshua’s Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN), Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Morocco or the serene Ethiopian town of Lalibela, renowned for its eleven medieval churches. Those searching for moral certitude are bound to find it on this rich continent. Africa has a diverse religious community thanks to our ancient tourists. Through a long history of colonisation and mission trips, one can find oneself in the festivals, retreats and religious sites available.

It must be stated, there is economic significance in these festivals and faith-based community development trips, which our tourism leaders need to pay particular attention to, as it cannot be underestimated, neither can it be ignored.

Religion and tourism share a very close relationship, where religion motivates people to travel, while religious spaces serve as attractions. Take Mali for example. The Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali is among the most astounding buildings in the world and one of Africa’s most revered religious monuments. Constructed almost entirely from sun-dried mud bricks coated with clay, it is the largest surviving example of a distinctive style of African architecture. Over the decades, the Great Mosque has collapsed twice, and the one that stands today was completed in 1907. To keep the building from falling apart, an annual week-long festival is held, where residents and visitors come out in droves to plaster and repair it.

Each year, during the last three weeks of October, over 30,000 followers of the Shembe church gather at the Judea temple near Eshowe for an annual festival of healing and blessing.

Tens of thousands of faithful pilgrims gather and resurrect this dormant Zululand village with hundreds of family shops opening to sell items from food to religious paraphernalia. In this very vibrant and colourful village, a hive of economic activity prevails within a formal religious programme. It would be a sin to bring up religion without sharing some thought on Nigeria’s vibrant and wealthy religious community.

Some churches in Nigeria, West Africa can hold over 200,000 worshippers and, with their supplement business empires, constitute a significant section of the economy, employing tens of thousands of people and drawing in large amounts of tourist dollars. But how much of the half a trillion GDP they make up, is difficult to determine, since the churches are, like Africa’s oil sector, a largely opaque entity. “They don’t submit accounts to anybody,” says Bismarck Rewane, economist and CEO of Lagos consultancy Financial Derivatives. “At least six church leaders have private jets, so they have money. How much? No one really knows.” In a research paper, Timothy and Nyaupane suggest that religious tourism in Africa will continue on an upward trajectory with economic significance only when given full recognition by tourism industry leaders, academics and governments in Africa, and will only realise its true potential once taken seriously as a socio-economic tool for development.

World Religious Travel is one of the fastest growing segments in travel today. Religious travel is estimated at a value of US$18 billion, involving 300 million travellers. Based on estimates provided by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNTWO) in 2014, there are over 600 million religious travellers around the world. And with national debt on the rise, this could be a bail-out option for a number of countries facing the sting of creditors lining up.

Looking to the future and the potential of tourism on the continent, UNWTO forecasts show that by 2030, the number of international arrivals in Africa is expected to more than double, growing from 50 million to 134 million, increasing the global market shares of Africa to 7%. The African continent is gifted with a rich diversity, an abundance of untouched resources, natural beauty, cultural heritage and historical sites, wildlife, safaris, beaches, deserts and much more that, if channelled correctly, could provide considerable opportunities for development.

But let’s look at the pros of faith-based tourism in Africa. Firstly, it is resilient to recessions and is more open to repeat business than your regular leisure travel. Because faith-based travellers are committed to the cause, they tend to save for these religious or spiritual experiences and travel despite the state of the economy.

Because faith-based travellers are committed to the cause, they tend to save for these religious or spiritual experiences and travel despite the state of the economy. A trip from South Africa to Nigeria for SCOAN, can cost over USD$2,000. So it goes without saying, during economically difficult times, faith-based travel can provide a steady flow of income to a distressed economy.

A trip from South Africa to Nigeria for SCOAN, can cost over USD$2,000. What’s more, the reason people travel is varied. For example, the faith-based tourists often travel as part of a religious obligation, to fulfil a spiritual mission or to show support for a particular cause.

So it goes without saying, during economically difficult times, faith-based travel can provide a steady flow of income to a distressed economy. Faith-based travel isn’t only great for the transport and hospitality industries, but also has a significant influence over local arts and crafts entrepreneurs. From musicians, clothing designers to wooden and stone crafts, faith often leads to spontaneous spend to boost the overall experience of the journey. Say it’s your first time to the Mosque in Mozambique, it would be imperative to dress modestly before arrival. As such, the nearest market would gladly offer the finest garments to suit the occasion.

“Rural tourism engenders national cohesion and alleviates poverty through the distribution of income from urban rich to the rural poor”, Mr. Ekow Sampson, Regional Director, Ghana Tourism Authority said. The reality is, these travellers spend more per trip than the average tourist, and while they are interested in value, price is rarely their top priority. As a result they are eager to pay for “eye-catching” extras. And if it wasn’t already clear, these visitors are not brand loyal, but are among the most loyal and resilient of all travellers, being less influenced by the ebbs and flows in tourism demand. These travellers want to travel together to provide fellowship and community as well as to enrich their lives and their religion. Destinations that can fulfil these desires, are well positioned to develop and expand their religious tourism offering and uplift their community.

Faith-based tourism is not all rainbows and butterflies as it can be risky business. From insanely large crowds to political instability, any normal traveller wouldn’t put their lives on the line to visit a country in turmoil. Yet, religious travellers are beyond being deterred. Siima Simon Peter, a tour and travel consultant at Prime Safaris & Tours, says, “It can be risky sometimes, people would rather die at the sites in quest of their lifetime spiritual fulfillment”.

Another challenge facing economies is the consistency of these trips. For a community located in the outback of society, regular visitors can be a lucrative annual event. But beyond that, the community can be a few tumbleweeds shy of becoming a ghost town. Consistency is important to a thriving community and more so to the development of a tourism industry. Looking deeper, some factors such as lack of hospitable facilities, chances of accidents, too basic security are slowing down the volume of pilgrims to an extent.

Although governments are coming up with innovative solutions to overcome the hindrances, limitations such as seasonal rush, shortage of rental transportation, over-occupancy of rooms, serious crowding of the holy sites and unorganised facilities hinder the growth of faith-based tourism. Additionally, slow visa facilitation; a wide capacity gap in the hospitality service industry; and under-developed infrastructure are major impediments to tourism growth and sustainability. In essence, what should be a standard 6-hour trip from West to Southern Africa can take as long as two days!

This and many other infrastructure inefficiencies are costing Africa billions of dollars annually and are stunting its rapid growth. Although still a work in progress, the African Union (AU) is moving forward with its plans to scrap travel restrictions for citizens of all 55 member states, thus making it easier and affordable for Africans to travel within the continent.

According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), the free movement of people is a cornerstone of regional integration. When travellers move freely across the continent, they bring higher levels of capital investment, fresh, diverse skills and they expand the range of goods and services on offer.

Faith-based tourism can be one of the most effective tools to foster inclusive and sustainable development, for three reasons. Firstly, religious tourism raises awareness of our common heritage, which helps to ensure its preservation. Religious heritage sites across the continent have immeasurable value in exploring our identity, while driving that same knowledge and education in younger generations. And in these modern times, when young people find their identity in technology and the social apps, a little learning can go a long way.

Secondly, faith-based tourism can contribute to community development and empowerment. When tourists meet and show interest in the unique values of local communities, these communities feel empowered.

Tourism helps them to take pride in themselves, in their history, traditions and environment. But this only happens, if communities are fully engaged and integrated in the tourism experience around them.

Thirdly, religious tourism builds cultural understanding and peace. Tourism breaks down cultural barriers and builds bridges between people, communities and nations; the very foundation of peace. Religious tourism attracts millions of people united in respect and reverence for the world’s great religions.

These are the very same values needed for cross-cultural understanding, for peace building, and to ward off the forces of darkness that threaten our sector. Religious heritage sites are important meeting grounds for visitors and hosts. These encounters are fundamental to maintaining tourism as a force for good, for everyone, in all corners of the world.

Unfortunately, faith-based tourism is not well researched, nor is it documented effectively. Few reliable statistics are available regarding its size and value within the tourism sector as a whole, mainly because only a handful of countries measure tourist arrivals as religion. In most cases, faith-based tourists are combined with other leisure visitors, with most being boxed into either “holiday” or “business”.

Therefore it is critical to become active in our pursuit to capitalise on this phenomenon. In Africa, the economic and social opportunities of faith-based tourism is limitless. It’s only a matter of time until we can begin to fully understand and appreciate the scale of this fascinating form of travel.

The post Religious Tourism: An USD$18 Billion Industry? appeared first on Nomad Africa Magazine | Celebrating the world’s richest continent.

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Miriro Matema

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