Jeremy R. Ricketts
At its founding, the United States did not have a long history nor an official state religion to draw from to construct a national identity, so Americans turned to the creation of sacred geographies built around nature and, as time passed, the founding myths of the republic. These natural and human-built sacred places now span the United States and correspond to a civil religion that appeals to tourists. The United States even has sacred documents like the Declaration of Independence that tourists view with reverence. Sacred tourist destinations are often overtly constructed and they imbue a nation with identity, elicit something akin to religious awe, and create a place wherein public rituals and modern pilgrimages are enacted. They also underscore the diverse nature of sacred tourism in America.
Religion and tourism both exist in space and use space to construct meaning. The motivations of those religious adherents who travel to sacred places are buttressed by an undercurrent of belief. Tourists, on the other hand, are not always believers, and they have diverse rationales for traveling to sacred places: some are on a quest for genuine spiritual engagement, others are seeking authenticity to offset the manufactured nature of modernity, and still others simply have an attraction to the cultural lore connected to a place. Tourists to religious sites thus arrive at a place that has been specifically designated sacred and therefore set apart, but while the place may be fixed geographically, its meanings commonly are not. Classifying a space brings it into existence as place, and this classification is regularly driven by the forces of commodification linked to tourism; it is also often contested between religious adherents and less spiritually inclined tourists and at times even within different tourist constituencies. Since human intervention is a precondition in any construction of place, sacred tourist destinations are based on mutually reinforcing relationships, and the tourists and pilgrims that seek sacred sites each play significant roles in creating, maintaining, or contesting a place’s identity.
“Religious-based tourism,” “tourism to sacred places,” and “religious or spiritual tourism” each carry different connotations. While religious and spiritual tourism indicate tours undertaken solely or mainly for faith-based reasons, “religious-based tourism” acknowledges that tourists are not homogenous; those tourists whose main aim is recreational can still be religious adherents, nonreligious tourists are still usually visiting a sacred place because of its purported numinous qualities, and those whose primary goal is religious can still evince behavior typically associated with tourism. “Tourism to sacred places” or “sacred tourism” allows the flexibility to include hallowed places that are either formally religious or not. Indeed, sites of secular pilgrimage continue to proliferate wherein “pilgrim” is used indistinguishably from “tourist” because of the mixture of secular and sacred at the site itself as well as the diverse motivations of the people who journey there. A spatial examination of tourism to sacred sites must thus consider the spatial dynamics of the motivations and actions of people within a commodified and contested place that draws tourists, pilgrims, and the many who are both.