Sustainable development of tourism at religious heritage sites was in focus at the International Conference on Religious Heritage and Tourism: Types, trends and challenges, jointly organized by UNWTO, the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism of Spain and the City Hall of Elche (27-28 November 2014, Elche, Spain).
According to UNWTO estimates, 300 to 330 million tourists visit the world´s key religious sites every year, with approximately 600 million national and international religious voyages in the world, 40% of which take place in Europe. Being key tourism destinations, religious heritage sites not only drive international tourism and economic growth, but also provide important meeting grounds for visitors and host communities, making vital contributions to tolerance, respect and mutual understanding between different cultures.
With this backdrop, the International Conference on Religious Heritage and Tourism explored the main challenges and best practices for sustainable tourism development at religious sites in the city of Elche, Spain, home to the Mystery Play of Elx, the last living testimony of European religious theatre of the Middle Ages and declared a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
“Among the many motivations for travelling, visiting cultural or religious sites ranks high on travelers’ wish lists. Leveraging the growing interest for religious tourism worldwide is not only beneficial for the tourism sector, but crucial in building cultural dialogue and peace”, said UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai, opening the Conference. “Religious tourism can also be a powerful instrument for raising awareness regarding the importance of safeguarding one´s heritage and that of humanity, and help preserve these important sites for future generations”, he added.
The Secretary of State for Tourism of Spain, Isabel Borrego, highlighted the fruitful cooperation between UNWTO and Spain in further spreading awareness of the value of historical, cultural and artistic heritage, and stressed the importance of this particular tourism segment for Spain. “There is not a single town or city in Spain where you won’t find traditions, festivals religious celebrations, pilgrimages, monasteries, cathedrals or pilgrimages. Religious tourism boosts economic activity and helps safeguard our rich historic heritage, and will play an essential role in the future of the tourism sector.”
The Mayor of Elche, Mercedes Alonso García, said: “Tourists are not only seeking to experience nature but also the most deeply rooted creations of the human spirit. In this sense, and as this conference has shown, a quality tourism offer consists of tangible cultural and religious heritage, as well as the intangible realities and cultural events fostered by them.”
During the Conference, participants highlighted the role of religious heritage sites and religious traditions in educating future generations and creating a sense of belonging in host communities, the need to preserve the integrity and authenticity of these sites and having local communities benefiting from tourism development.
Participants also highlighted that tourism has become one of the forces driving preservation in many religious sites due to the growing secularization of society, and that for tourists interacting with other religions is a unique experience that can only happen within the full respect for host communities.