Tourists on the Paths of Heaven

From pilgrimages to the world's sacred places to isolated retreats, journeys that combine recreation with religion are growing in popularity

By Beth Belton

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Perhaps it's a backlash against cruises featuring too many dockside shopping sprees and mile-long buffets. Maybe it's a reaction to globalization, as once-inaccessible parts of the world can be reached by ever-larger groups of travelers in a matter of hours. Possibly, as the war on terror drags on, some four years after September 11, people are still searching for some deeper meaning in life.

Whatever the reasons, an increasingly popular vacation scenario sees tourists, especially younger ones, taking the spiritual route. Forsaking the material world, they are setting out on pilgrimages that meld the scenic with the spiritual.

The list of possible destinations spans the globe and includes the centerpieces of the world's major religions and spiritual traditions. Busy junior executives who work 60-hour weeks, 50 weeks a year, are now taking two week vacations to sit in a cave on a Himalayan mountaintop and meditate.


  The trend isn't limited to the younger set. Retirees are banding together, combining trips to Vatican City with explorations of the treasures of Rome. Families are taking their children to Israel to learn about three of the world's major religions in an effort to explain the origins of some of today's political conflicts.

In some instances, people go another route for a spiritual vacation, using their time off to help those in need -- perhaps in areas hard hit by hurricanes in the southern part of the U.S. or in the earthquake-ravaged cities of Pakistan.

And in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia, there's still much that remains to be done to overcome the effects of 2004's tsunami. Former President Jimmy Carter urges people to use time off to help out with Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit that helps build houses for the poor.

Yet treks to the world's sacred sites seem to exert the strongest pull on many travelers. Travel agencies have come to realize the value of offering trips for the soul. The Internet is filled with travel packages offering everything from the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City to a shaman tour to Ecuador.


  Although it's still very difficult to enter Tibet because of visa restrictions imposed by Beijing, the Dalai Lama, exiled leader of the Tibetan people, publicly urges people worldwide to find a way to visit his native land and observe the culture and its traditions before it's assimilated into Chinese culture.

"Pilgrimage is still a bona fide spirit-renewing ritual. But I also believe in pilgrimage as a powerful metaphor for any journey with the purpose of finding something that matters deeply to the traveler," Phil Cousineau wrote in his book, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred.

Thanks to this new vacation trend, travelers return home with something more meaningful than souvenirs. Click here to see the range of spiritual vacations now available worldwide.

Belton is a news editor at BusinessWeek Online

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