Spiritual Tourism: Tourists First, Tour Operators Second, And Destinations Third

By Professor M.S. Rao, Ph.D.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” —Saint Augustine

With a growing number of tourists globally, there is an increased emphasis on spiritual tourism than ever before. Spiritual tourism is to travel to find purpose and meaning to your life. It elevates your physical, mental, and emotional energies. It develops, maintains, and improves your body, mind, and spirit. In a nutshell, it connects your body, mind, and soul. Hence, spiritual tourism can be defined as traveling on pilgrimage to acquire enlightenment, entertainment, and education to leave your footprints and take your memories back to your home by expressing your gratitude to God.

Spiritual tourism is to travel to find purpose and meaning to your life. In a nutshell, it connects your body, mind, and soul. Spiritual tourism is not connected with any specific religion.

Spiritual tourism is not connected with any specific religion. It is different from religious tourism. Spiritual tourism is to connect your body, mind, and soul while religious tourism is to seek blessings from God based on your religious faiths and beliefs and attain salvation. Spiritual tourism is a broader perspective than religious tourism. Religious tourism is a subset of spiritual tourism.

There are various types of tourism such as spiritual tourism, adventure tourism, cruise tourism, eco-tourism, event tourism, medical tourism, sex tourism, special interest tourism, volunteer tourism, wedding tourism, and rural tourism to name a few.


The Significance of Spiritual Tourism

Spiritual tourism falls in the services sector. It increases employment opportunities and contributes to a nation’s GDP growth. There are innumerable advantages of spiritual tourism. It brings inner peace and happiness. It provides purpose and meaning to your life. It encourages local cultures and their traditions. It protects their natural gifts, talents, and arts. With the rapid growth in technology, there is more disturbance to locals and natives. But with increased spiritual tourism, there are opportunities to protect the nature and the natural talents of local communities. 

The local communities are fortunate to see various people and observe their cultures, and customs by staying in their native places. They feel empowered because they take pride in their cultures and customs. They become more interested to protect their history, traditions, and environment. They become more engaged and integrated with mainstream society.

Spiritual tourism encourages foreign investment indirectly as tourists bring foreign exchange. However, there are several demerits with spiritual tourism. It increases sexual exploitation and crimes. It destructs nature and disturbs the ecology. Overall, the merits outnumber the demerits. Hence, spiritual tourism must be encouraged to enhance empathy, compassion, peace, and prosperity.

There is a growing number of employees globally going for spiritual vacations. It helps them reflect and acquire peace, solitude, and relaxation. It improves their decision-making and leadership abilities and skills.


Be a Traveler, Not a Tourist

Some people confuse between a traveler and a tourist. In fact, there are differences between them. The World Tourism Organization defines tourists as people “traveling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business, and other purposes.” There is a difference between a tourist and a traveler. Most people are tourists while only a few people are travelers. Tourists follow the road traveled while travelers follow the road less traveled. Tourists observe locals and stay away while travelers gel with locals and integrate with them. Tourists eat their own taste of food while travelers eat local foods and cuisines. Tourists emphasize their native language while travelers empathize with the locals’ language. Tourists often remain in their comfort zones while travelers come out of their comfort zones and enter into effective zones.

Tourists are time conscious and sensitive as they have to travel the destinations as per their schedule. Hence, they don’t mix and interact with locals unless they have specific needs. In contrast, travelers have a luxury of time and take time to mix and interact with locals. It is obvious that tourists plan an itinerary and follow it meticulously while travelers are wanderers with ample amount of time without any itinerary. Tourists are the jack of all trades while travelers are master of a few trades. Tourists intend to know something about everything while travelers intend to understand everything about something. Tourists are ordinary people while travelers are extraordinary people with a passion for traveling.

Tourists take selfies while travelers take photos with locals and nature. Tourists often ask, ‘what are the prominent places to see here?’ while travelers often ask ‘what are the unique and interesting places to see here?’ Tourists proceed with a purpose while travelers travel to search meaning for their lives. Tourists go for various reasons including education and enlightenment while travelers go for entertainment. Tourists follow the brochures while travelers go beyond the brochures whenever and wherever they travel. Tourists travel occasionally while travelers travel frequently. Tourists are missionaries while travelers are visionaries. Over a period of time, tourists can transform into travelers. Succinctly, tourists are subsets of travelers.

There are employees who take sabbatical leave to travel to various destinations to unwind themselves and explore the world. There are global organizations that encourage their employees to proceed on business travel to overcome their pressure, enjoy the pleasure of traveling and improve the organizational bottom lines.  It is obvious that there is an increased emphasis on travel globally by all stakeholders. With the rapid growth in technologies, it has become easier for people to travel as everything is thrown open.


Traveling and Leadership

Traveling has innumerable advantages. One of them is to build leadership skills to lead people effectively. Traveling helps you discover yourself. It makes you emotionally more intelligent to excel as a leader. Traveling is essential to excel as a well-rounded personality. It helps you plan and organize well. It inculcates self-discipline. It helps you encounter new challenges and overcome the fear of failures and unknown.

Traveling helps you discover yourself. It helps you to be open-minded, offers a break to your routine life, and provides patience. It relieves stress and unwinds your mind. You will discover your strengths and weaknesses.

Traveling broadens your horizons.  It helps you to be open-minded, offers a break to your routine life, and provides patience. It relieves stress and unwinds your mind. You can make new friends. You will discover your strengths and weaknesses. You can observe the behavior of the people around you.

Traveling makes you confident. When you travel independently, you learn how to make decisions in volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. You become an effective leader. It is one of the reasons, traveling is encouraged in educational institutions to enable students to see the outside world, understand the practical challenges, and develop tolerance and empathy. 

When you travel, you come out of your comfort zone and think more because you have to manage your time and finances. If you go with a group, you learn to get along with others and develop team-building skills because you have to coordinate with the team members. You organize and plan well. You adapt to new environments. You observe different people and their practices and start respecting them. You become a risk-taker and a better decision-maker. You encounter setbacks and failures and become resilient. You think creatively to come out with innovative ideas. You look at commonalities and ignore differences. You excel as a global leader.


A Blueprint to Develop, Brand, and Market Spiritual Tourism

There are some countries that depend solely on tourism because tourism contributes to a major portion of their GDP. For instance, countries including Thailand, Malaysia, and Maldives depend heavily on tourism. But there are no effective strategies to brand and market spiritual tourism currently. Hence, there is an urgent need to brand and market spiritual tourism globally.

United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) identified spiritual tourism as one of the fastest-growing travel segments. Therefore, it is essential to brand and market spiritual tourism. Branding creates desired perceptions on specific destinations and helps to recall tourist destinations and spread through the word of mouth. A successful branding process goes in the direction from the location to a destination and from the product to a brand. The destination must be clearly differentiated from others to enhance its brand image. Nations must convert their locations into destinations through the right branding and marketing tools and techniques. Here are some strategies to brand and market locations into destinations. Do research to identify whether the locations are ideal for a shorter period or longer period. Carve a niche area to invite the attention of others.  Highlight the unique features. Showcase the products and services to the target audience. Coin a unique slogan that is catchy and easy to remember by tourists globally. Provide package tours and tailor-made tours to attract a varied segment of travelers. Organize fairs and exhibitions. Distribute brochures. Contact through foreign agencies. Connect with the agents in other countries. Encourage and inspire the local tourist operators because they connect with audiences directly. Provide basic infrastructure and amenities for tourists. Offer adequate accommodation facilities in the destinations. Align the expectations of travelers with their experiences to attain credibility and visibility globally. Ensure proper coordination between tourism department and tour operators. Offer incentives to tour operators to motivate them. Ensure that the destinations are not in the news for negative reasons. Harness digital technology to enhance travel and tourism competitiveness. Use digital platforms including Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and LinkedIn to enhance online image positively. Adopt the philosophy of ‘tourists first, tour operators second, and destinations third’ to achieve the desired outcomes. Scholars, practitioners, and academicians must collaborate to draw a blueprint to brand and market spiritual tourism.

Don’t get into the rat race. Follow the road less traveled. Provide training and development to the employees regularly. Offer additional services and several leisure options to tourists. Ensure easy access to information for tourists. Create high-potential tourism products and services. Harness technology judiciously. Travel agencies must be encouraged to provide tourism products. Explore options to improve the quality of tourism services. Ensure adequate infrastructure and development of tourism resources. Break bureaucratic bottlenecks to ensure better service. Remember not to promote destinations excessively to ensure ecological balance and sustain spiritual tourism.


Adopt the Philosophy of ‘Tourists First, Tour Operators Second, And Destinations Third’

Tourists are the people who provide bread and butter to tour operators when they travel to tourist destinations. Hence, tourists come first. It is the tour operators who work hard, identify and elevate tourist destinations through various means including online and offline. Hence, they come second. It is the tourist destinations the tourists visit to spend their precious time on vacation. Hence, tourist destinations come third. There are many such tourist destinations which are still lying untapped due to the dearth of publicity by tour operators and the tourism department.

Tourists have various roles and responsibilities while traveling to different tourist destinations. Although spending leisure time is the main thing, they must understand and respect local traditions and cultures. They must keep the environment safe by not polluting. They must empathize with locals and respect them. They must encourage locals. They must purchase locally made goods and avail the facilities of hotels and accommodations by paying reasonable prices. In this way, tourists can promote destinations and sustain tourism.

Tour operators provide information to the tourists about tourist destinations, plan, and coordinate with various agencies to create customized packages and services. Hence, they serve as the bridge between the tourists and the destinations. They must provide genuine and accurate information to the tourists. They must plan in such a way that the tourists save their time and enjoy the destinations. They must also charge prices reasonably to the tourists because all the tourists are not rich. Some of the tourists maybe with a low budget but are passionate about traveling. The tour operators must educate tourists about the local customs and cultures and ensure safety. If tourists are satisfied, they hire the same tour operators to visit the destinations. They can also refer to others through the word of mouth.

The local people in the tourists’ destinations must treat tourists as guests and welcome them wholeheartedly. They must be warm and friendly with the tourists. At the same time, they must take adequate precautions because all tourists may not be good intentions. They must showcase their local cultures and customs to attract tourists and enable the latter to return with sweet memories. They must provide safety to the tourists and keep them in good humor. They must guide tourists in the right direction and cooperate with the tour operators who work hard to bring the tourists to the destinations. Above all, they must not compromise with their cultural identity.


United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) identified spiritual tourism as one of the fastest-growing travel segments. But there are no effective strategies to brand and market spiritual tourism currently.


If tourist destinations are improved and elevated by tour operators, tourists provide repeated business to tour operators by posting online reviews and spreading through word of mouth. If tourists are satisfied with the services of tour operations, they stay for a longer duration in tourist destinations. Therefore, it is essential to prioritize tourists over tour operators, and tour operators over tourist destinations. To summarize, there must be coordinated and integrated efforts between the tourists, tour operators, officials from the tourism department to promote tourism globally. To conclude, adopt the philosophy of tourists first, tour operators second, and destinations third to promote spiritual tourism globally.


Note: This article is an adapted excerpt from my book, “Spiritual Tourism: Tourists First, Tour Operators Second, And Destinations Third.”

About the Author

Professor M.S. Rao, Ph.D. is the Father of “Soft Leadership” and Founder of MSR Leadership Consultants, India. He is an International Leadership Guru with 38 years of experience and the author of over 45 books including the award-winning ‘21 Success Sutras for CEOs’ URL: http://www.amazon.com/21-Success-Sutras-Ceos-Rao/dp/162865290X. He is a C-Suite advisor and a sought-after keynote speaker globally. He brings a strategic eye and long-range vision given his multifaceted professional experience including military, teaching, training, research, consultancy, and philosophy. His vision is to build one million students as global leaders by 2030 URL: http://professormsraovision2030.blogspot.in/2014/12/professor-m-s-raos-vision-2030-one_31.html. He advocates gender equality globally (#HeForShe). He can be reached at msrlctrg@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.