November , 2022
Religious tourism turns economic multiplier across globe
17:07 pm

Tushar K. Mahanti

When did tourism begin? One can’t pinpoint the time and for obvious reasons, but human beings have been moving from place to place in search of food, shelter and safety ever since the early days of settlement. Changes in climate, shortages of food supplies or hostile invaders often compelled people to leave their homes and travel to other places.

The invention of wheels some five thousand years ago made movement between places easier. The Phoenicians were probably the first real travellers in the modern sense as they journeyed from place to place as travellers and traders. Almost at the same time trade and travel developed in India where the wheel and money were introduced during the Mohenjo-Daro civilisation, about four thousand years ago. The tradition of travel is one of the oldest practices in the world; the primary motives being religion and trade.

Tourism or organised travel is a recent phenomenon and researchers relate them to the mid-nineteenth century progress of transport infrastructure and the availability of leisure time. Maybe, the beginning of organised travel would find its root in the Grand Tour, a particular type of aristocratic travel in the 17-18th centuries. Another significant development in the mediaeval period was the pilgrimage travels. However, trips similar to today's tourism were made as early as during the ancient period, when people travelled not only for trade and business, religion, sports, health, education and other specific reasons, but also for pleasure involving sightseeing in new and unfamiliar areas. 

What is religious tourism?

Religious tourism is one of the earliest forms of tourism and represents a significant, evolving, growing, and increasingly diverse sector of the global tourism market. Religious tourism has taken place since the dawn of civilization. Pilgrims travelled to pay homage to the sacred places and their guardians throughout the world.

Religion has influenced and shaped man’s thoughts and philosophies since the dawn of civilization. Man’s journey in quest of religious ideologies began since then. The exodus of the Jews in search of the Holy land has become a legend and finds an important place in Biblical reference.

A spiritual desire to see a site of religious renown initiated religious tourism. The visit to legendary shrines and temples is considered as a holy act a tourist engages in his life span. It is more than just a visit but is a spiritual quest. It is driven by faith, an ardent soul-searching mission at the altar of God no matter what form of religion he advocates.

Religious tourism can be classified under the broad heads like faith-oriented expeditions, holy pilgrimages, missionary travels and leisure holidays. According to the World Tourism Organization, the world’s most important religious destinations see an approximate visit by around 300 to 350 million pilgrims annually.

The most important driving force to inspire religious tourism is the intensity of faith. A religious site is a destination looked upon by tourists with great wonder and respect. At times, scientific explanations and logic fail to answer a crisis and seeking a solution at the altar of god seems the last resort. This infuses hope and a need for a sacred trip inspiring religious tourism.

Religion and tourism are interlinked with each other. Early tourism was in the form of visiting religious pilgrimages such as Christians travelling to Jerusalem and Muslims to Mecca and Hindus to Kedarnath and Amarnath. Pilgrimage has always been one of the dominant factors for motivating people to travel. Tracing back to religious history it is found that major religions have globally stimulated tourism as a foundation for spreading their own religious beliefs.

Global religious tourism

The annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca in Saudi Arabia ranks among the top religious congregations in the world. It is an amazing sea of human assembly belonging to Islam gathered together with a devout mission. The world has famous religious tourist destinations built around different religious beliefs of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Sikhism to name only a few among the most important and awe-inspiring sacred cults.


No of Hajj pilgrims














Source: General Authority of Statistics, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia


Magnificent and imposing religious monuments, mosques, temples, shrines, cathedrals, gurdwaras and Jewish synagogues have fascinated tourists around the world. The splendid architecture and the divine vibes have conjured up the right mix of appeal. It is an attraction strong enough to draw tourists from all over the world with religious enthusiasm.

Fundamentally, the entire global population can be grouped under pronounced banners of specific religions leaving out a negligible proportion of non-believers. A 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that worldwide approximately 88%–93% of the population believes in a God or gods.

The desire for being in a divine unification with the almighty is a basic instinct of believers. At one point in life this quest becomes overwhelming - resulting in the need to make a trip to a religious site.

Vatican City, the home of the Pope, the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church., is one of the most sacred places in Christendom, standing as a testimony to a history of about two millennia and to a formidable spiritual venture. Site of the tomb of the Apostle Saint Peter, first of the uninterrupted succession of Roman Pontiffs, and therefore a main pilgrimage centre, the Vatican is directly and tangibly linked with the history of Christianity. According to Satista, a German company specializing in market and consumer data, more than 6 million people visited Vatican City in each of the five years, between 2015 and 2019. The number of visitors fell drastically in 2020 due to Covid-19.


Vatican City visitors














Source: Statista


Nearly two million people visit Lumbini, Nepal each year where Siddhartha Gautama, who eventually became the Lord Buddha was born. Lumbini began attracting pilgrims after 249 BC, when the Indian emperor King Ashoka first travelled there. The Ashokan Pillar in Lumbini Garden marks the king’s pilgrimage and is inscribed with a dedication to the Buddha.

Lumbini, which is situated about 350 kilometres from Kathmandu has become a major tourist attraction from across the world. It has been a major fascination for pilgrims from across the world including predominantly Buddhist countries of Japan, Burma, Hong Kong, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Korea besides neighbouring India.

Religious tourism is one of the biggest tourism segments in the global market. According to the International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage, published by Dublin Institute of Technology, an estimated one third of 1.4 billion international arrivals in 2018 across the globe travelled for religious purposes. This means that approximately 450 million international trips were made for religious purposes. For many countries, religious tourism around its historical and religious heritage is a significant part of their total tourism market. Saudi Arabia, for example, received 13 million religious tourists in 2019, and is expected to more than double this number to 30 million visitors by 2030. In the state of Gujarat, in India, more than a third of tourist visits are spiritual-bound. The religious tourism market in Brazil is one the largest tourism segments in the country.

People visit Jerusalem for the rich history, interwoven religious narratives and crumbling holy walls. They visit Europe for ornate churches with painted ceilings and golden trim. They visit India for peace of mind, finding serenity in its carved and colourful temples scattered along the sacred Ganges River.

But the story does not end here. Thousands of people visit Baha’i House of Worship: Wilmette, Illinois, in the US every year. It is one of seven Baha’i temples in the world and is the only of its kind found in North America. The tranquil Meiji Shrine in Japan attracts roughly 30 million people annually, as does the Sensoji Temple, making them among the world's most-visited sacred sites. Most of the local population adheres to Shintoism or Buddhism or both, and religious and cultural traditions encourage families to go to shrines and temples at least once or twice a year.

Another Asian neighbour, Cambodia has become a global attraction of religion tourism after the exposure of Angkor Wat, an enormous Buddhist temple complex. It was said to be originally built in the first half of the 12th century as a Hindu temple. Spread across more than 400 acres, Angkor Wat is said to be the largest religious monument in the world.

Since the 1990s, Angkor Wat has become a major tourist destination. In 1993, there were only 7,650 visitors to the site, by 2004, government figures show that 561,000 foreign visitors had visited it, approximately 50% of all tourists in the country. The number reached over a million in 2007 and over two million by 2012. In 2019 the Angkor Wat received up to 2.2 million international visitors, generating $99 million in revenue from ticket sales, according to the Angkor Enterprise.

Religious tourism in India

India is a land of pilgrimage. Travel for religious purposes has been there from the most ancient times. Practically, all religions – Hindu, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism have their major and minor pilgrimage centres in different parts of the country. There are also centres of Sufism, churches and mosques which are visited by millions. In fact, to a majority of domestic tourists in India pilgrimage has always been the main motivation. In our country all major temples, shrines and sacred spots are found scattered all along major riverbanks or in the hills.

Beside these temples and shrines a huge number of religious melas are held all across India over the years such as Kumbh Mela, Makar Sankranti  Pongal, Eid-Ul-Fitr, Shivaratri and Baisakhi, to name a few.

The Kumbh Mela is a Hindu religious fair that occurs every twelve years at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers on the plains of northern India, adjacent to the city of Allahabad. This is the largest human gathering in the world, drawing tens of millions of pilgrims, religious teachers and followers of monastic orders over the course of a few weeks to bathe in the sacred rivers.  Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain host related but lesser Kumbh melas in between these “purna” or “full” Kumbh Mela.

During the 49-day Kumbh Mela 2019 in Allahabad, a record 24.01 crore people visited the Sangam city making it one of the world's largest religious gatherings in the world. The Kumbh 2019 visitors included 10.30 lakh foreign tourists. The Maha Kumbh Mela held in 2013 had seen 7.86 crore pilgrims, including 3.50 lakh foreign tourists, arriving here. 

The Haridwar Kumbh Mela had happened from April 1 to April 30 in the year 2021 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. The Kumbh Mela Force, a government body, said 9.1 million pilgrims took the holy dip in the Ganga from January 14 to April 27. About 35 lakh pilgrims turned up for the Somvati Amavasya shahi snan in Ganga, considered the most auspicious ritual.



Tourist visits (Lakh)






































Source:Uttarakhand Tourism Deptt


But even without Kumbh Mela millions of tourists visit Haridwar every year to dip in Har Ki Pauri, a sacred ghat on the banks of the Ganges. In each year, between 2016 and 2019, more than 20 million people visited Haridwar. And if the number of visitors fell drastically in 2020 due to Covid-19, it recovered to 12.7 million in 2021.

Rishikesh, Kedarnath and Badrinath among the other holy places in Uttarakhand too have witnessed a steady growth of religious tourists over the years.

The Vaishnodevi temple in Jammu is another sacred pilgrimage centre in India. Located inside a cave, the temple is dedicated to goddess Vaishnodevi. An estimated 8 million pilgrims visit the temple every year making it the second most visited religious place in India, after Tirumala Venkateswara Temple.


Visitors to Vaishno Devi
















Source: Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board


Varanasi, also known as Kashi, is considered one of the most revered pilgrim cities in both Hinduism and Buddhism and receives a large chunk of domestic and international religious tourists alike. The number of Indian tourists has been steadily increasing from 54.1 lakh in 2015 to 64.5 lakh in 2019. In addition, over 3 lakh foreign tourists also visited the holy city in each of these years. Surprisingly, Varanasi received a record 89 lakh tourists in 2020 amidst travel restrictions due to Covid-19.

Despite various restrictions imposed following Covid-19 pandemic, the ancient hill-shrine of Lord Sri Venkateswara at Tirumala, near Tirupati, saw over 10 million devotees from across the country and abroad visiting the abode of the Lord in 2021. During pre-pandemic days till 2019, about 25 million devotees used to throng the Lord Sri Venkateswara temple at Tirumala, near Tirupati.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest site of Sikhism, was certified the most visited religious place in the world by the UK-based World Book of Records (WBR) in 2017, which is second only to Guinness World Records. The Golden Temple draws one lakh visitors daily on weekdays. On weekends and for religious occasions, the footfall is between 1.50 lakh and two lakhs.

Ajmer Sharif Dargah, a Sufi tomb of the revered Sufi saint, Moinuddin Chisti, located at Ajmer, Rajasthan is a holy place for Muslims. This prestigious shrine was built by the Mughal Emperor Humayun.  An estimated 1.5 lakh pilgrims visit the dargah every day as a mark of their gratitude towards the holy shrine. 

Economic impact of religious tourism

According to World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) travel and tourism (including its direct, indirect and induced impacts) accounted for 1 in 4 of all new jobs created across the world, 10.3% of all jobs (333 million), and 10.3% of global GDP ($9.6 trillion) in 2019. Meanwhile, international visitor spending amounted to $1.8 trillion or 6.8% of total exports.

According to WTTC, tourism contributed about 7% or `15723.3 billion to the Indian GDP in 2019. The sector employed 40.1 million people accounting for about 8.4% of India’s total employment. Even if religious tourists account for a third of the total tourists their contribution to GDP or employment generation seems quite significant.

From the economic point of view, religious tourism is a great revenue earner. It generates employment at the site and leads to the growth of ancillary business connected with religion - promoting general upliftment of the economy of the religious site.

From the standpoint of being a revenue earner to a country’s tourism industry, the religious tourism niche offers contributions at a commendable scale. For instance, the annual Islamic Hajj brings in around $ 16.5 billion to Saudi Arabia’s exchequer, which is roughly close to 3% of the country’s GDP. Holy visits to Balaji Tirupati temple in southern part of India pour in heaps of gold donated by the devout tourists to the tune of several million dollars. Religious tourism is thus a pillar of strength for a nation’s economy.

The Kumbh Mela 2019 was estimated to have generated revenue of `1.2 lakh crore for Uttar Pradesh according to a report by the apex industry body Confederation of Indian Industry. Although the Kumbh Mela is spiritual and religious in nature, the economic activities associated with it generate employment for over six lakh workers across various sectors, CII said in the report.


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