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Religious Tourism a Force to Reckon with

Religious-oriented travel has occurred since the first pilgrimages, it is one of the most ancient forms of tourism. The idea of religious pilgrimage almost began almost with dawn of humanity. Almost since the dawn of history human beings have traveled to holy sites.  By the Biblical period important religious centers had become not only a part of the cultural landscape, but they also had become major players in local marketing and important parts of the economy of those cities that hosted religious centers.  As a phenomenon which has survived till today, religious tourism excites interests. This is informed by the fact that tours for religious reasons is a human activity which influences other aspects of anthropological realities.

In biblical tradition, the Lord Jesus Christ had to feed the religious tourists, a great multitude who gathered around His person on several occasions (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 8:1-8). In the Johannine gospel, (John 6:9) a little child with five loaves and two fish did some supplies, whether as a hawker or a generous and benevolent pilgrim, his action speaks volume about the economic affairs associated with faith-based travels and venues. Let us allude one more time to the holy Bible, the magi who came to see Jesus embarked on religious tour from the East (Matthew 2: 1-11). Jesus went up to Jerusalem on several occasions on pilgrimage (Luke 2: 41, 43). The family of Elkanah was in Shiloh on religious tour (1 Samuel 1:3).

The religious man in search of God must travel to the shrine or holy site, he must eat while on this religious tour, he must clothe himself, take shelter and enjoy guaranteed safety and security, among others. These necessary ventures connected to religious tours are not intrinsically faith-based activities but rather economic. Therefore, one could see an intersection and interaction between religion and economics.

Today’s religious travel includes multiple sub-niches that range from the luxury pilgrimage market to backpacking and from religious institutional travel to volunteer-oriented experiences meant to help those in some form of need. In the western world, cities such as Jerusalem, Rome and Mecca continue to attract millions of visitors on a yearly basis.

When thinking of religious tourism most communities tend to believe that this form of tourism does not apply to their locale, unless they are a major pilgrimage destination.  Religious tourism, however, is not only destination oriented. It can also imply attracting large segments of the market. In Zimbabwe due to the upshot of self-styled prophets such as Walter Magaya of PHD Ministries and Emmanuel Makandiwa of UIF ministries have quite lured a number of faith travelers to their services week-in-week.

Coming back home Harare is experiencing a pull of religious visitors. In 2015 Jehovah’s Witness Convention witnessed…..of its flock. Speaking to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Mr. Hunguka, they had to restrict other people to come for the convention. “You could not tell difference who was Christian or not, a good compliment for the hospitality industry.” He said

However, “Most of them said will come back after the convention, already quite a number have come back for leisure after the convention. Currently, two couples from England are visiting the places of interest in Zimbabwe,” he added.

The AFM’s Watershed International Conference for 7 days in 2016 had a significant impact on the economy particularly on the tourism sector as more than 150, 000 delegates which included AFM’s international delegates from Dubai, Britain, Malawi, Australia, America, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia to mention a few, provided business to air transport services, hoteliers, travel agencies, tour operators, tourist attractions, retailers and others.

The ZAOGA FIF’s Deeper Life Leadership Conferences for Pastors and deacons that are held separately once a year bring all leaders from 168 nations the ministry is in to the AMFC Conference Center in Zimbabwe. PHD’s leader is said to be attracting 1 800 international tourists per day who flock to his shrine for spiritual guidance.

Religious tourism is big business. World Religious Tourism is one of the fastest growing segments in travel today. Religious travel is estimated at a value of US$18 billion and 300 million travelers strong. The religious and faith based market has the advantage of appealing to people from around the world, of all ages and of all nationalities.  Tourism and travel professionals should be aware that this market might well double by the year 2020.  To add to this number many faith-based travelers prefer to travel in groups rather than as individuals.

Something worth noting and Zimbabwe tourism should leverage on religious tourism especially the country’s unstable economic times is that religious travel is often less prone to economic ups and downs.  Because faith-based travelers are committed travelers they tend to save for these religious or spiritual experiences and travel despite the state of the economy.

Faith travelers tend to have different motives for travel than do travelers for other reasons.  For example, the faith-based traveler often travels as part of a religious obligation, to fulfill a spiritual mission or to show support for a particular cause.  During economically difficult times faith-based travel can provide a steady flow of income to a local tourism economy.

Zimbabwe as a destination does not have to hinge all of its reasons for accepting the crowds on pilgrimage nor protecting the holy sites on religious reasons only. The host communities expect some positive and robust economic impacts on their lives and environment from the material facts associated with religious. They expect that the expenditures of the pilgrims would be translated into their incomes. Ordinarily, a lot of businesses grow around pilgrimage centers and these activities have tremendous consequences on the economy.

Muslims engage in religious tourism too. The Haji which is one of the five pillars of Islam is understood by Muslims as a religious obligation. This pilgrimage is expected to be made by all Muslims at least once in a life time. Every Muslim tries to afford this important faith travel. This annual Islamic gathering of adherents in Mecca to stone the devil and pray for their respective countries’ needs is a proof of the influence which religion has on tourism. While on pilgrimage, Muslims are attracted by sites such as Ziyarah found in Medina, Saudi Arabia. This place is associated with Prophet Muhammad, his companions and other figures who are venerated in Islamic history like the Shia Imams or Sufi (saints). The Alquds mountains in Jerusalem, which hosts Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock; the city of Medina (the second holiest place in Islam), Al Masjid al Nabawi (the mosque of the prophet), the district of Eyup in Istanbul (the forth holiest place) are all sites of religious tourism for Muslim pilgrims.

Today more than ever, religious tourism plays a vital role in the world economy. In fact, many nations such as Israel, Rome, Lourdes, Saudi Arabia to mention but four have religious tourism as major players and critical enhancers of their economy. Religious tourism has the force that can stir the economy and increase its progress. In like manner and magnitude, it can resuscitate a dying one.

Although Israel is the number one preference of western faith-based travelers followed by Italy and then England, faith-based tourism can exist almost Zimbabwe.  There is no doubt that it helps to have a major religious center, such as Jerusalem, Mecca, or Rome however Zimbabwe will never have such holy sites.  BUT, lack of a religious center does not mean however that the country cannot develop faith-based tourism.  The town of Bindura is synonymous with ZAOGA FIF Prayer Mountain visitors flock daily to the mountain from different denominations and contries and PHD Ministry is on record they are creating their own Bible land, and they is need to incorporate religious holidays into Zimbabwe tourism product.

However, it is essential to be sensitive to the great variety of special travel needs within this market.  Among the things to consider are types of food served, types of music played and when activities take place.  Be aware of religious calendars and specific travel prohibition days such as fast days. As in other forms of tourism it is essential to know your market. For example, hotels that do not offer vegetarian meals may lose a portion of the faith-based market whose religion has specific food restrictions.

There is need to connect Zimbabwe’s secondary industries with its religious-based tourism.  All too often the spirituality that visitors seek is lost at the level of supporting industries.  During faith based tourism periods such as the Judgment Night, it is essential that hotels and restaurants connect with the creative communities to develop an overall faith based product rather than a hodgepodge of unrelated offerings.

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