Religious pilgrimages are a time for devotees to contemplate, worship and alter their lives. The term "pilgrimage tourism" is one that has become more and more mainstream and encompasses myriad businesses from tour operators to shrine administrators and pilgrimage hotels, hostels and souvenir shops.
According to CNBC, religious travel rakes in at least $8 billion yearly and provides employment for thousands of people and for many, it is a commercial business rather than a religious time. Manchestor University professor Ian Reader told CNBC, "Pilgrimage has always been commercial, as has religion. The roots of tourism are in pilgrimage, as the first package tours in Europe were organized by Venetian merchants controlling the Mediterranean. They ran tours to the Christian Holy Land in medieval times."
Reader whose book, "Pilgrimage in Marketplace," will be published in 2013.
He said that economically the contributions of pilgrims are extremely important, noting that in the early 2000s pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy brought the town nearly $56.8 million in revenue.
Saudi Arabia just approved a plan that will cost $16.5 billion to improve transport facilities which will include a rail line called "Mecca Metro" specifically for its 2.5 million pilgrims yearly that visit Mecca or Hajj, which is a once-in a lifetime pilgrimage for people of the Muslim faith.
Places like The Vatican gain a surplus of nearly $22 million because of the millions of tourists that visit the holy place every year. The city of Lourdes which is the site of a Marian apparition now has one of the biggest shrines in the world and is a place of religious pilgrimages. Approximately 90 percent of Lourdes' 18 million euro budget is from visitor donations.
Many modern religious pilgrimages are now at the hand of pilgrimage tour operators sometimes overseen by priests or religious scholars. More and more non religious people are visiting religious sites as a place of history and culture rather than a spiritual journey. Business is also booming for hostels and hotels among pilgrimage routes. Eurovia is an association for the establishment of European pilgrimage routes and President Georg Kerschbaum told CNBC that the route is increasing in popularity. "The Via Francigena would definitely benefit the local economy - you will get people passing through villages that would never usually be visited," he said. "Little shops can then survive as pilgrims use the route. It's amazing for the economy."