In India, 35 of the top 50 domestic tourist destinations are religious sites.
At the ISSR conference, Kiran A. Shinde (University of New England, Australia) presented a paper on economic opportunities in religious tourism showing how different types of religious devotions and different organizational structures result in various levels of impact upon local communities. According to World Tourism Organization 2010 statistics, there are 600 million national and international trips for religious purposes every year. In the case of India, estimates are 170 million annually.
But pilgrimage is no longer what it used to be: the idea of pilgrimage as detachment from the world is changing, with the practice getting classier as expatriate Indians come back to India primarily for religious reasons, yet stay at luxury camps and resorts rather than in ashrams.Pilgrimage does not only involve visiting places, Shinde observed, but also performing rituals, for which religious specialists (priests, etc.) must be hired. This has a large impact on the economy of a place, but it functions in very different ways from one place to another. Shinde made comparisons between three pilgrimage places, all located in Maharashtra, in order to illustrate the difference.
In Tuljapur, with three million annual visitors, it is necessary to rely on priests’ support for performing ceremonies, and most people are accommodated in pilgrimage hostels managed by priests; some 5,000 families are in religious occupations. Strong socio-spatial connections between devotees and religious specialists are maintained over generations (members of a family always go to priests of the same lineage).In Shegaon, with some six million yearly visitors, seeing (darshan) the local saint’s tomb is what matters to pilgrims: there are not elaborate rituals, but rather the reading and recitation of the saint’s biography.
A trust manages the place and its social institutions, with some 2,000 employees, and people do not stay for more than one night (the trust provides hundreds of rooms and dining facilities). The trust has developed a religious theme park five kilometers away from the main temple. There are 60 shops in the temple premises, all owned by the trust. There is limited engagement with town development and the local community. However, the town participates by providing services (transportation, hotels, eateries).
In Shirdi, with ten million visitors per year, people come to see the statue of the saint in the temple and to submit fervent requests, for which no religious specialists are needed. More than 2,300 people are employed by the temple. A trust provides 22,000 beds in three locations and feeds 20,000 visitors daily. There are 1,200 shops in the temple district. The trust management is leading the market development of the site.