Religious and spiritual world heritage sites

Authored by: Michael A. Di Giovine

The Routledge Handbook of Religious and Spiritual Tourism

Print publication date:  July  2021
Online publication date:  July  2021

Print ISBN: 9780367191955
eBook ISBN: 9780429201011
Adobe ISBN:


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Sacred and secular travel seem to occupy opposite ends of the mobilities spectrum: While the former—especially pilgrimage—is often perceived as a “serious” voyage to hyper-meaningful destinations (Di Giovine & Choe 2020: 2), the latter is frequently thought of as a more superficial leisure-time activity, particularly when taking the form of mass tourism (Graburn 1977; Crick 1989). Pilgrimage sites may be considered places of transcendence and illumination, where the cosmological perfection of the sacred “irrupts” into the chaos of everyday life (Eliade 1959). In many cases, pilgrims themselves are often quick to note that their form of visitation is an anti-touristic practice and the antithesis of mass tourism (Di Giovine 2013, 2021). Yet both types of mobility move and inspire travelers, with pilgrimage, as one of the oldest and most significant forms of human mobility in history, sometimes moving millions at a time to participate in sacred rituals (Di Giovine & Elsner 2016), while according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism (including those of a religious nature) move over 1.2 billion people annually. Of this number, nearly half travel for cultural purposes, visiting destinations of historical, artistic, and scientific importance (UNWTO 2018: 9). Heritage sites are prime destinations for cultural tourists, as they are touchstones for communities’ identities and values and connect members through time and space (Harrison 2013; Di Giovine & Cowie 2014), and in the UNWTO’s survey nearly all respondents explicitly mentioned heritage sites in their definition of “cultural tourism” (UNWTO 2018: 9–10). The relatively recent phenomenon of World Heritage, which decouples sites of local importance and re-contextualizes them as places of “universal value” for the whole of humanity, has become particularly important destinations (UNWTO 2015: 26). At once sacralized (MacCannell 1976: 43–45) and heritagized (Harrison 2013: 79–84), they too are often understood to be hyper-meaningful, mobilizing not only millions of travelers per year but also ideas, imaginaries, and financial and intellectual resources for the purposes of preservation (Di Giovine 2009a). It is therefore little wonder that roughly a quarter of over one thousand unique cultural and natural World Heritage sites are designated for their spiritual or religious value (UNESCO n.d.), and many of the original properties on the World Heritage List were already well-established pilgrimage sites in Europe and Asia (UNESCO 1994a).

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