When you think of tourism the first thing that comes to mind are the sites, landscapes and probably wildlife. But people are travelling for something beyond that – for religious purposes. A 2014 U.N. report estimates that about 330 million people a year go on a pilgrimage.
In fact, given the number of religions in Africa, it should come as no surprise when many of these religions attract huge followers and researchers from all parts of the world. It is however common for people to forget about the economic aspect of religious tourism while simply focusing on the benefits of religion itself.
It is an avenue that if harnessed can generate much more tourist interest. An example is Hajj pilgrimage for Muslims; in 2016 for example the ceremony saw the influx of over one million pilgrims from about 150 countries around the globe to Mecca. One can assume that religious tourism is no back-burner in the class of tourism; therefore it can be successfully exploited in Africa and for Africa’s benefit. Egypt is already making plans to incorporate pilgrimage into their tourism framework as there is a route in Egypt that the holy family is believed to have travelled through when escaping from King Herod.
Another classic example is how the Christian pilgrimages to Israel has formed an economic platform for the empowerment of the localities and contributed to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country.
Here in Africa, we have our indigenous religious celebrations. Let’s look at Vodun festival in Benin or the Osun-Osogbo festival of the Yoruba people of Western Nigeria. These are religious events that attract tourists from all over the world. For a country like Nigeria, which is in a period of recession, this could be a bail-out option.
In the eastern region, Basilica of the Uganda Martyrs is a Catholic church, it is well known for its beautiful architectural design and is dedicated to the Martyrs of Uganda who shed their blood because of the Christian faith.
The growth of religious tourism in Africa has been piloted by Christians, Muslims and Traditional believers, but on a marginal scale. Africa can achieve economic restoration from religious tourism given the right atmosphere and infrastructural development.
Firstly, there has to be much more encouragement and opportunities for people to participate. Also, the statistics of participants at these religious festivals must be known, so that it can be factored into the Tourism Satellite Account, (TSA) which will make it easy for the country to measure the contribution of tourism to the national economy.
Beyond the alleged image problem of Africa, if countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia can get enough economic benefits from religious tourism, Africa can rebrand such religious events and hallowed sites to attract more domestic and foreign tourists.