Sun, Dec 24, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Tourists dig deep, travel far, to find their inner selves

Spiritual tourism is taking off. Tours with religious themes are becoming more popular as tourists swap decadent getaways for a hgher sense of purpose

By Perry Garfinkel  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Shantum Seth attracts 20 to 25 people to his tours that focus on Buddhism, as seen in Bodh Gaya, India, in Feb., 2006.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In 1970, Mirabai Bush was among the forward guard of Westerners who made their way to India in search of spiritual fulfillment. Toting tattered copies of Journey to the East and Autobiography of a Yogi, she accompanied friends who traveled third class on trains and slept on monastery floors in their sleeping bags.

"Coming from relatively cushy backgrounds, living without material comfort was a big part of our spiritual education," said Bush, now the executive director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a nonprofit organization in Northampton, Massachusetts.

On her latest pilgrimage to India two years ago, though, she found that enlightenment and luxury were not mutually exclusive. She and a friend stayed at Ananda, a luxury spa in the Himalayan foothills overlooking Rishikesh, the holy Hindu city near the source of the Ganges River. Rates there ranged from US$430 for single rooms to US$1,600 for suites.

In addition to joining other daily activities organized by the hotel, like yoga and meditation, Bush and her friend hiked up a hill to an ashram where a Hindu guru blessed them. They also took trips to the river for an evening ritual called Arti. "It was divine," she said.

Bush is among those who have added nontraditional variations to the age-old concept of the spiritual quest.

The Buddha himself helped set spiritual tourism in motion 2,500 years ago when he encouraged followers to visit sites important to his life. Muslims undertake a scripturally prescribed hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia at least once in their lives. Hindus attend the huge Kumbha Mela festival, rotating among four sites every 12 years. Sikhs visit the Golden Temple at Amritsar in India. And Christians and Jews trek to the Holy Land.

In its many forms, spiritual tourism is the "oldest and now one of the fastest-growing segments in the travel industry," said Dallen Timothy, an associate professor at Arizona State University and a co-editor of Tourism, Religion & Spiritual Journeys (Routledge, 2006).

Timothy said the niche could also be hard to quantify, partly because of its changing definition. It now embraces yoga and other retreats, metaphysical quests, astrology and adventure tours, visits to places like Stonehenge in England and weekends at New Age spas and wellness centers.

The rising popularity of spiritual tourism can be traced to several factors, including a trend toward vacations that help travelers achieve a higher sense of purpose through volunteering, education, culture and art. In addition, travel experts cite a growing middle class of expatriate and domestic Asians and Middle Easterners whose religions prescribe traveling to places they hold holy.

Raymond Bickson, managing director of Taj Hotels and Resorts, based in Mumbai, said that "as baby boomers age and gray, they have more time and more disposable income to look within." Three years ago, noticing that many of the guests at his 57 hotels in India were seeking spiritual experiences, he added activities like meditation sessions and chanting ceremonies to his spa program. Revenue from spa programs has tripled since then, he said.

The new breed of spiritual travelers "used to be the Lonely Planet crowd," he said, referring to the guidebooks aimed at those who prefer to experience a place the way the locals do. "Now, still at the cutting edge of the New Age, wellness and spiritual frontiers, they continue to travel to feed their souls. They just want to do it without giving up their creature comforts."

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