Thomas Ramey Watson

Spiritual tourism has travelers asking the big questions

They’re among a fast-growing number of travelers doing more than lying on beaches and roaming through museums. They’re seeking spiritual encounters, from private healing ceremonies with a shaman in Peru and Sufi meditation sessions in India to monastery stays in northern Thailand and Christian pilgrimages to Fátima and Lourdes.

Travel companies report that the number of people taking “faith-based” vacations is up as much as 164 percent in the last five years, even at a time when surveys show that the fastest-growing religious category in the United States is no religious affiliation at all, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

“In the absence of belonging to an organized religion, I still think there’s a universal desire for people to connect with deeper things,” said Ben Bowler, the Australian founder of Monk for a Month, which offers Westerners long stays in Buddhist monasteries in Thailand. “They’ve already been to the beach on holiday. So when they get the time and resources, they think of doing something more meaningful.”

In addition to that search for a higher purpose — especially among retiring baby boomers — observers speculate that all kinds of factors are driving this wave of spiritual tourism, including anxiety caused by economic and political uncertainty, the popularity of Pope Francis, the looming 500th anniversary in 2017 of the Protestant Reformation, and the once-in-10-years Oberammergau passion play that will be staged in 2020.

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