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Travel Trends – Did a Bestseller Spark a Trend or Vice Versa?

Mahabalipuram Shore Temple

By Bobby L. Hickman

If this summer’s anticipated hit movie Eat Pray Love leaves you ready to embark on your own international adventure for spiritual fulfillment, there is help. Several travel agents specialize in spiritually-oriented travel packages – and one even offers a trip built around the best-selling book behind the summer blockbuster.

In fact, the spiritual travel field has been growing for many years. USA Today ranks faith tourism – which includes religious pilgrimages and more esoteric spiritual destinations – as one of the top 10 travel trends for 2010. Faith tourism has annual revenues of $18 billion and 300 million participants globally, the newspaper reports.

Interest in unconventional spiritual journeys is getting a boost both from increasing interest from baby boomers, exposure in such venues as the Oprah Winfrey Show; and the new Julia Roberts movie. In fact, Divine Travels in Portland, Oregon offered a group travel package this summer built around Eat Pray Love.

Susan Shumsky of Divine Travels, said her tours are oriented towards metaphysical, New Age and “spiritual but not religious” destinations. “I’ve been doing retreats to sacred, spiritual locations since 1989,” she said. Those spots include Mt. Shasta, California; the Tetons in Wyoming; Sedona, Arizona; and the Sonoran Desert near Tucson: “places with a powerful spiritual vortex and pure energy.”

Concerning the Eat Pray Love trip last summer, Shumsky said she received positive feedback from those who made the journey. “It focused on the Bali portion of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book,” Shumsky said. “They worked with her actual mentors and ate in the same restaurant that she wrote about.”

Shumsky said she began doing international destinations in 2001 when she led a group to Kumba Mela in India, where 100 million people take part in “the largest gathering of humanity in the world.” Her groups returned there in 2007 and 2010 as “pilgrims and holy people come together on the banks of the Ganges River,” she added. Other trips have included Machu Picchu in Peru and a yearly tour of sacred sites in the Andes with Andean shaman Mallku – which last year included a visit to Easter Island. Most international trips last at least 10 days.

“I’m not just doing travel,” Shumsky said. “If it does not have a spiritual component, I’m not interested in doing it.”

With the economy slow, Shumsky said, all segments of the travel industry are hurting. “During a bull market, people will be traveling more,” she said. “But right now, they’re scared and not traveling.”

Shumsky said that in recent years, spirituality has “become more mainstream, which helps all of us.” With large chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders carrying spiritual books, “It’s been hard for metaphysical bookstores to stay in business,” she said. “But in general, it’s a good thing that people are more aware of it.”

Shumsky said Divine Travels is “helping people have experiences they would not normally have. These are powerful, life-transforming journeys to places “that are conducive to meditation, places with strong spiritual vibrations. You could do a retreat in downtown Chicago, for example, but you would not have the vibrations that lead to deep spiritual experiences.”

Helen Tomei, who heads Sacred Earth Journeys in Burnaby, British Columbia, said that over the past seven years, “I have definitely noticed a trend for people looking for a deeper meaning to their travel experiences. Rather than just sightseeing, they want to know the spiritual meanings and deeper truths of, for example, the Mayan, Incan or Egyptian Temples that they are visiting.” She added travelers are “interested in the ancient spiritual wisdom that our ancestors once shared thousands of years ago, and what is relevant to our lives today.”

She said her trips are well received by clients. “Our journeys seem to be filling a need,” Tomei added. One client said of a recent tour, “These were no mere piles of rocks we visited, but places to receive and share teachings, interpreted with loving patience by a true Mayan insider devoted to honoring their living presence.”

Tomei has spent her entire career in the travel industry, putting together specialized tours for various destinations and clientele. “After 16 years working for other tour companies, I decided to combine my passion for travel to sacred places and my interest in spirituality and ancient wisdom,” she said, launching Sacred Earth Journeys in 2003. “I saw the trend towards personal growth, spirituality, yoga, meditation and so forth,” Tomei said. “Because those things were already my passion, and I had the travel industry experience, I thought the timing was good for starting my company.”

She added that she is “conscious of making sure that our journey leaders are authentic teachers and guides who really hold our vision and are experts in their field — whether it be ancient indigenous wisdom from Egypt, Mayan knowledge from the Elders, Inca teachings and traditions, or yoga in the true Himalayan tradition, for example.”

Dr. Sheri Rosenthal of Gulfport, Florida, traces the roots of her company, Journeys of the Spirit to a 1999 trip she took with her spiritual advisor. After working through someone else for two years, she launched her firm in 2002. “I was a physician,” she said, “and I still teach, lecture and do workshops. But the journeys are my passion — because of the results we get, which are just unbelievable. And we get a lot of repeat business because of those results.”

Rosenthal said people “are looking to make significant changes in life.” Many people are drawn to spirituality after various life changes, such as divorce, children leaving home or changes in their job situation. “They need more clarity,” she said, “an opportunity to reflect on things that are happening. It’s generally better to get out of their routine to do that,” she continued. “And they can do that better by visiting beautiful sacred sites — whether that site is tied to religion, spirituality in general or a specific tradition.”

She said most of her clients are baby boomers, “but we are also seeing a lot of young people, which is exciting.” She said most women start a spiritual journey around the age of 39; for men, it’s about a decade later. When people are later in life, they start to think: ‘Oh my God, is this all there is to my life? This is not what I signed up for. This can’t be all there is – and if it is, I don’t think I can do this. There’s got to be more.’”

Travel in general is down because of the economy, Rosenthal said. “When the economy shifts again, I think we’ll be seeing more young people.”

Rosenthal said her company offers trips which she personally leads or that other spiritual teachers are leading. “There are lots of areas under the spiritual umbrella,” she noted. Other than sacred sites, “It could be yoga, or creating writing opportunities, which can all be spiritual.” Her trips are typically from six days to two weeks, although they can do longer ones by special request.

Some people may have difficulty finding the time or money to take a long international pilgrimage – Gilbert spent a year on her odyssey — but there are local options in many areas of the United States. For example, Ignatius House near Atlanta, Georgia, is a Jesuit retreat center that offers silent retreats most weekends. More than 2,000 people attend the non-denominational events each year, walking the more than 20 acres of woods and waterfalls along the Chattahoochee River. While remaining silent for almost 48 hours is a challenge for some, I found my visit extremely peaceful. I found the silence not only provides a welcome break from the constant noise of modern life, it also brings an awareness of how much internal chatter we generate on our own.

There are also plenty of spiritual workshops available across the country. However, Rosenthal cautioned, “those are hard to do effectively. People have their cell phones and their computers, and they are not that far removed from their normal lives” when they stay close to home.

“It’s more effective when they are in a different environment, one that may be challenging,” she continued. “It’s an opportunity to explore more deeply. It can take some people several days to unwind and get away from that routine. They need time to open their hearts and their minds.”

Top photo: The Mahabalipuram Shore Temple on the Bay of Bengal, India. Credit: B. Balaji

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