By Erin Kirkland
For Senior Voice 

Spiritual touchpoints as a cornerstone of travel


February 1, 2019

Erin Kirkland photo

The Notre Dame cathedral in Quebec.

"A traveler am I, and a navigator, and every day I discover a new region within my soul."   

~ Kahlil Gibran 

There's a new trend afoot, encouraging the exploration of religious, philosophical, and morally-significant destinations around the world. Known as "spiritual travel," it's an effort to combine vacation with pilgrimage, for lack of a better term, and reach a demographic of people interested in history, culture and spiritual affiliation beyond the boundaries of home. And it's booming.

I'm in the middle of reading a pictorial history of human travel (a great find at the local used book shop). Reaching back to the very first homo sapiens who trod upright upon the soils of Earth and ending with modern conveyances favored in the 21st century, the book is a huge, voluminous thing that has taken weeks to wade through for all information contained within it. I've barely reached the Age of Empires chapter, but so far I've deduced two common themes: Humans travel, and they are always searching for something.

In ancient times, of course, the 'something' was basic: food, shelter, a mate. In modern times, though - especially now when getting almost anywhere in the world is as simple as purchasing a plane ticket or booking a cruise - it's a spiritual or emotional quest to discover who or why we are.

Travel as an industry has been an interesting byproduct of ancient desires to explore, transform, and advance as people, and each generation has contributed its own novelty. But one might also argue that we've gone too fast, too far -- too wildly so, and thus should return to the foundations of our species' earlier days. And here is where 'spiritual tourism' has found its niche.

Lori Erickson, author of the blog Spiritual Travels and author of "Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God" (Fortress Press, 2017), says humans, especially those of us over 50, want to see more than just historical sites.

"I think at a certain point in life, people start looking for deeper meaning in their travels," Erickson said. "They want to visit a place that can touch their hearts in some way, so that when they return home they have more than just vacation memories--they come back changed."

Erickson says some spiritual destinations are perennially popular--Jerusalem, Lourdes and Rome, for example. But she also encourages people to look beyond the best-known pilgrimage destinations and also consider places like Chimayo in New Mexico or the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky in the U.S., as well as places farther afield such as Ephesus in Turkey.

"Every corner of the world has sacred places," she says.

While cruising to the world's most ancient and sacred sights still remains popular with older travelers, Erickson also sees walking pilgrimages trending upward in an effort to combine physical activity (another trend with older adults) with exploration.

"The walk to Santiago de Compostela in Spain is more popular than it's been in centuries," she said. But doing a walk or hike along the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails can be a pilgrimage, too, she reflects, seeing time in nature, putting forth the investment of gear, physical exertion, or mode of travel to the site.

"A spiritual focus (on a trip) often requires extra effort" she says.

Travel to spiritually-significant destinations is also a wonderful way to connect with multiple generations as well. The opportunity to return to a family's cultural roots in real time with children and grandchildren along is a strong pull for many travelers, and the travel industry is also responding to the call for multi-gen activities, and itineraries to meet the demand. A reputable agent or website specializing in spiritual, historical or multigenerational travel can make arrangements for everything from sacred site tours to accommodations, a key element for those visiting international destinations.

Cruise resource lists more than 100 destinations on its website and makes the case that in today's travel environment, visiting some of the world's most sacred places is easier than ever before ( ).

But always, says Lori Erickson, travelers everywhere should remember a mantra she herself carries throughout her worldwide wandering.

"Travel with an open heart and a sense of adventure. Talk to strangers. Be open to seeming coincidences. Expect to learn as much from the journey as the destination itself. Turn off your cell phone and slow down. Forget about home--this time is for journeying beyond your comfort zone."

Good advice.

Erin Kirkland is an Anchorage-based freelance travel writer and author of the "Alaska On the Go" guidebook series.


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