[Research column] (Vol.1) The COVID-19 pandemic and religious travel in Asia
The Center for Tourism Research (CTR) is launching a column series by CTR researchers and graduate students at the Graduate School of Tourism, Wakayama University. While focusing on the latest research trends, this project targets not only academics but also the general public. It drives the CTR mission forward by emphasizing on tourism studies in Japan and Asia as well as tourism and SDGs.
The first entry is the latest research work by CTR research staff, Dr. Ricardo Nicolás Proganó.
The COVID-19 pandemic and religious travel in Asia
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which was first reported on December 31st, 2019, in Wuhan, China, has been declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a global pandemic on March 11th, 2020, after a consistent spread throughout the world. The resulting travel restrictions have profoundly affected the tourism industry, with the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reporting a steep decline of 97% in international tourist arrivals as of April 2020. While this unprecedented global crisis has significantly altered travel behavior, it also has created new alternatives for visitors. In this article, I would like to briefly point out some effects of the COVID-19 on religious travel in Asia.
Influence of COVID-19 on religious travel
Most of the religions found across the world have their roots in Asia. Home to a myriad of pilgrimage routes, festivals, as well as sacred sites, the region annually receives millions of travelers whose motives vary from carrying out religious duties to undertaking leisure travel. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing countermeasures (e.g., travel restrictions), have had numerous effects. Firstly, studies note that mass gatherings can act as ‘super-spreader’ events, thus attesting for the potential danger of pilgrimage and its mass practices. There have already been such instances in Asia, where religious travelers have unknowingly spread the virus during religious gatherings (Ebrahim & Memish, 2020). The performance of the Qom Shia pilgrimage in Iran is believed to have been responsible for the spread of the virus. The country, which derives much revenue from religious travel, was initially reluctant to issue a closure. Local religious leaders also encouraged visitors to continue making their pilgrimage to the holy sites (Syed et al., 2020). This incident resulted in a large number of infections, leading the Iranian government to temporally shut down important key Shia pilgrimage sites in cities such as Qom, Mashhad, and Tehran, in a desperate attempt to contain the virus. Moreover, inbound devotees who arrived from neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Oman were later reported to have spread the virus after returning to their respective countries, hence further exacerbating the pandemic situation in the region (Quadri, 2020). In South Korea, the gatherings realized by an evangelical Christian church called Shincheonji Church of Jesus, whose members traveled to the epicenter of the pandemic, Wuhan, in January spread the disease among their contacts after re-entering South Korean. The situation was exacerbated due to specific religious rules that Shincheonji Church followers adhere to, such as the prohibition of using glasses or facemasks during service. This incident ultimately led to an outbreak in Daegu, the fourth largest South Korean city (Quadri, 2020). As of March 2nd, 2020, of a total of 3,730 reported cases, half were believed to be linked to this religious group. Despite its public apologies, the Shincheonji Church head, Lee Man-hee, was arrested by the authorities, under accusations of hiding information of its members (Bicker, 2020). Realizing the potential danger of religious gatherings, mitigation efforts have led to the reduction or cancelation of pilgrimage. For example, Saudi Arabia decided to severely limit the number of pilgrims for the 2020 hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the sacred cities of Makkah and Medina that every Muslim should undertake at least once. Health protocols were also placed. The umrah pilgrimage, which is optional, was suspended for the entirety of 2020. The decision is understandable when one looks at the massive number of pilgrims that perform hajj: according to 2019 official data, a total of 2,489,406 Muslims performed it.
Changes for visitor experience
The experience and performance of religious travel are also expected to go through considerable changes. During their stay at sacred sites, visitors perform different ritual performances to commune with the divine and feel part of the larger community of faithful visitors. This can be manifested through many ways: touching or manipulating religious artifacts, burning candles or incense, and prayers or leaving offerings. However, in the current pandemic context, these religious performances possess a dangerous aspect. For example, the Wailing Wall, the Western Wall in the holy city of Jerusalem, is visited by thousands of people from all around the world each year. The devotees have the costume of writing wishes and prayers on paper and introducing them between the stonewalls. These papers are collected twice per year and burned at the Mount of Olives, another sacred site in Jerusalem. Also, devotees may touch or kiss the walls as a sign of devotion. In the current context, these practices suppose a clear danger for both the visitors and the local community, risking a virus outbreak. In order to prevent such a situation, workers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation sanitized the site and removed prayer using protective gear (Lewis, 2020). In a similar way, the Shiten’ou-ji temple, a centuries-old Buddhist site located in Osaka city, temporally closed its doors to visitors and later issued different restrictions, such as prohibiting the use of ritual artifacts such as Dharma wheels, which can spread the virus by touching.
Illustration: Dharma wheels of Shiten’ou-ji temple, Japan (Source: author).
What can we expect from now on?
What kind of changes may we expect to see in religious travel? As with any other kind of travel, a range of preventive measures is perhaps the best alternative until a reliable treatment is developed. As global mobility is restricted and borders are closed, visitors may have to find substitutes for their usual religious performances. This is not a unique occurrence in human history, as numerous examples exist. One of the most remarkable of them is the labyrinths built in medieval European churches, which served as a substitute pilgrimage to the holy Jerusalem for Western Christians. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic this is perhaps the first time in history when all humanity had to face such as situation. Our current technological advances have come to move forward new substitutes: online religious gatherings have become a viable and popular alternative, allowing the faithful to continue carrying out their religious duties in the virtual space. Certain obligatory ceremonies may be carried out by religious figures behind closed doors, with the lay being physically excluded. However, these substitutes may hardly be able to satisfy the religious visitor eager to contact the divine and fulfill religious duties. Can there be a ‘virtual’ substitute for a visit to Makkah or Jerusalem? As sacred sites and objects are believed to be imbued with a non-human spiritual power, it is complex to find substitutes. These substitutions also do not replace other important aspects of religious travel. For example, local communities and religious institutions do not longer obtain economic or social benefits from religious travelers, as physically visiting the site may not be possible. Instead, travelers may opt to replace long-distance trips to famous sacred sites with visits to closer, smaller sites; thus developing minor destinations. This substitute from long-haul to local travel is a recent tendency seen in the overall tourism industry, as governments try to safely reactivate travel. Finally, destinations reliant on religious travelers may find that they have become inaccessible for certain market segments, leading to rethinking visitor strategies.
- Badshah, S. L., Ullah, A., Badshah, S. H., Ahmad, I. (2020). Spread of novel coronavirus by returning pilgrims from Iran to Pakistan. Journal of Travel Medicine, DOI: 10.1093/jtm/taaa044
- Bicker, L. (2020, March, 2nd). Coronavirus: South Korea sect leader to face probe over deaths. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51695649
- Ebrahim, S. H. & Memish, Z. A. (2020). COVID-19: The role of mass gatherings. Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, 34, 1-3.
- Lewis, S. (2020, March, 31th). Jerusalem sanitizes stones of Western Wall and removes all notes amid coronavirus fears. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-jerusalem-israel-sanitizes-western-wall-stones-removes-notes/
- Quadri, S. A. (2020). COVID-19 and religious congregations: Implications for spread of novel pathogens. International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 96, 219-221.
Author: PROGANÓ, Ricardo Nicolás (Lecturer, Center for Tourism Research, Wakayama University)