Last week, UNWTO with the support of the Spanish government, organised an "International Conference on Tourism, Religions and Dialogue of Cultures" to expand the level of discourse into areas that have long been neglected because they were considered too politically and culturally sensitive.
However, the conference theme reflected a growing realisation that the borderline between geopolitical conflict and cultural/religious divisions is no longer definable.
The issue is also considered a normal progression of travel lifestyle trends which are now at the "health and wellness" stage but rapidly ascending into what the UNWTO calls the "spiritual stage."
According to UNWTO deputy secretary Taleb Rifai, a former tourism minister of Jordan and a principal mover behind the conference, "Trips for religious reasons have multiplied over the past decades _ for pilgrimage, the fulfillment of pledges, religious celebrations, visits to notable buildings or monuments of a religious nature and offerings to divinities, among others."
Thus, says Dr Rifai, "it is therefore important and highly opportune to study the relationships between tourism and religion, especially during this century of increasing tourism movements and in a world with no shortage of international tensions, tensions that in many cases are the result of a lack of understanding among different civilisations and religions."
The conference brought together representatives of tourism, cultural, and economic development administrations, as well as religious authorities, local and regional destination management organizations, the private sector, NGOs involved in religious and cultural tourism and academics.
Cordoba was chosen as the venue because of the role it has played as a historic confluence of Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions.
Although the conference had a distinctly European/Mediterranean flavour, Dr Rifai said it had opened the way for future conferences to be broadened to reflect issues in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as for each of the respective regions to discuss the potential amongst themselves.
Said Dr Rifai, "Religious tourism is practiced to a considerable degree not only in the developed countries, but also in developing countries insofar as disposable income allows the upper and middle classes to travel. In this 21st century in search of values, religious and spiritual tourism can represent a great opportunity for men and women of all faiths, philosophies and religions."
Dr Rifai said that many destinations are already grappling with issues related to the sustainable development of religious tourism such as the measurement and the management of the flow of persons during mega-events, the maintenance, rehabilitation and environmental management of religious and cultural monuments, as well as health, safety and security of the visitors themselves.
One of the many fascinating case studies presented was a pilgrimage route and tourism itinerary, the "Abraham Path" launched in the spring of 2007 by the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University.
Like the Silk Road, this initiative traces through various countries in the Middle East, the steps of Abraham, considered the ancestor of the three main monotheistic religions.
A report prepared for the conference says, "Globalisation has opened up religious tourism to a process of commercialisation, transforming it into "marketable product" which it was not in its beginnings.
Pilgrims in the olden days were exempt from taxes and toll levies; it was not necessary to pay to enter 'houses of God'.
"This kind of tourism also involves overlapping markets: that of spirituality, physical and mental health, leisure activities, culture, short stays and city-breaks. Its demographic base is considerable."
The report says that a series of operational problems are emerging that can have a negative impact on the sustainability of facilities, the areas travelled on, and above all, on heritage.
Says the report, "Pilgrimage routes and religious itineraries require well-coordinated partnerships among the communities along the way, host communities, tourism professionals and territorial development authorities. Specialised agencies are being created or are reorienting their activities around religious and spiritual tourism."
It says that tourism destinations have adopted or are in the process of adopting plans or strategies for the sustainable tourism development of their religious heritage.
Tourism offices are establishing divisions specifically to better coordinate potential religious tourism partners.
One challenge is to reconcile the commercial needs of the tourism industry with the spiritual and religious needs of pilgrimages and the faithful, while respecting the physical integrity of religious sites and their religious significance, the report says.
"Another has to do with modulating entry rights and finding the revenues that will ensure the sustainability of a sanctuary or a monument as well as the welfare of the communities that manage them."