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Religious Tourism: A New Modality?

A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.

Published on July 21st, in Cultura, NosOtros, Rosa María de Lahaye Guerra (RMLG) interviews M.Sc. Clemente Hugo Ramírez Frías (CHRF), professor of the Escuela de Altos Estudios de Hotelería y Turismo at Hotel Sevilla in Havana.

Rosa María de Lahaye Guerra: You tell us you have researched “religious tourism” for a number of years. Could you expand for Cubadebate readers?

Clemente Hugo Ramírez Frías: I have studied the subject of religion and its relations with tourism for a little more than ten years, but I don’t think it’s enough. I’ll explain. My research and teaching work until 1999 had been on religion and some related topics alone, but after 1999 I began focusing on the relations between tourism and religion in Cuba, and realized the complexities of the subject and its wide scope. I think the most important thing for your readers is to understand that the relationship between these two social phenomena has many angles and is impacted by a number of factors: social, ethical, political, cultural …

If you consider the two subjects separately – tourism and religion – you’ll see that each has promoted great debates and strong academic confrontations. In the case of tourism some usually approach it only as an economic phenomenon (the industry without chimneys), or restricted to leisure and banal enjoyment, without considering it is also a cultural phenomenon that involves complex social relationships. The analysis of these relationships in the Cuban context has been more difficult as there is no previous research by Cuban scholars on the social aspect of tourism and its links with religion. The subject has been touched upon indirectly or briefly. There are papers by foreign researchers on the subject; many out of context, others more or less objective mainly related to religions of African origin; works by the female researcher Kali Argyriadis come to mind.

RMLG: Do you mean religion has adjusted to the interests of tourism? Or you believe religious tourism is the kind that promotes religion without changing it?

CHRF: So-called religious tourism is only one aspect of the relationship. I mean to say that the object of my research is wider: it deals with the processes involved in the relationship between tourism and religions in Cuba, the inter-influences that have materialized between groups and people, between residents and tourists, and the factors that have an influence upon them.

Religious tourism is one of the oldest forms of tourism. Many relate it to the phenomenon of pilgramage, and some consider it the same thing. Others believe religious tourism may have a wide spectrum of motivations which can be religious or not. They go from religious art appreciation to a purely religious objective like taking part in a religious ceremony to be initiated in a particular religion. There are those who reject the terms religious tourism and spiritual tourism on the grounds that tourism has a strong connection with the market and this is in opposition to the spiritual essence of religion.

In the world today, many sacred spaces have been invaded by the market and this is in contradiction with the spiritual essence of religion. There are examples in many countries where the arrival of tourism has eroded religious customs and traditions and the commercialization of rituals has been denounced. You can see that great religious centers visited by great multitudes have become buying and selling enterprises. I’ve seen on a web site of religious tourism the business reaches 18,000 million dollars and 25% of the tourists in the world have religious goals in their tours.

In fact, not only tourism originating in capitalist societies is dominated by marketing. The global development of capitalism has turned everything into commodities. The conflicts in the relationship between tourism and religion are part of an historical process.

In other words, if we talk about tourism this way, we also need to discuss how religion has adopted different shapes in such contexts. There’s talk of religions a la carte, in the midst of a religious revival that resembles a big fair of pragmatic options to choose from. There is also the so-called Theology of Prosperity that preaches material richness as sacred and God’s preference for rich people.

Fortunately, religious sectors which maintain the spiritual values of authentic religions remain and resurface, some linked to social movements. In Latin America, these can be found associated with the rebirth of pre-Colombian and religions of African origin. There is no doubt that tourist activity offers countless benefits to a country’s development, but its presence always has socio-cultural consequences on the life style, including changes in the system of values, of the inhabitants of tourist areas.

Cuban society is not exempt from international influences and the internal contradictions which generate negative consequences for the relationship between tourism and religion, but I believe some of the negative contradictions of tourist activity can be neutralized in the Cuban context. This may not be at all possible in other societies.

Considering the features of Cuban society, I don’t think official state promotion of religious tourism is convenient, mainly because of the controversial nature of the term; particularly if religious tourism is seen as the tourist value of religious and sacred events. Studies have shown the negative impact of using religious activities or rites for tourism. I think that if there is religious tourism in Cuba, this must be free from any intentional tourist marketing promotion.

If we consider as a tourist every person who travels — for any reason whatsoever, including religion – away from their place of permanent residence, then any foreigner or group of foreigners travelling to Cuba to take part in a religious rite can be considered as involved in religious tourism. However, even when one has to use tourist services and facilities: a hotel, a car rental, etc. the trip has not been the result of tourist promotion, but rather of a personal motivation. There is also the tourism resulting from exchange programs between Cuban churches and foreign co-religionists. These exchanges produce a significant flow of trips by religious groups who enter the country with a religious visa, perform joint religious activities and some of these groups also come in solidarity.

We would have to balance the positive aspects of this relation. From the cultural and touristic points of view, many of the religious contexts have great value. Religious expressions are cultural manifestations of great attraction for tourists; not only because of their intrinsic aesthetic values, but also because of the ethical and cultural values they transmit.

I repeat this phrase to my students, “Apart from being a marketing phenomenon, tourism is a cultural and spiritual enrichment activity, it is a source of knowledge and mutual understanding among peoples.”

For all the above, I propose the term cultural tourism on religion to name these possibilities. A kind of cultural tourism based on the rich religious culture of our people, mainly the popular religions of African origin with their color, heritage, values, artistic performances, dances, costumes, songs. According to data by Dr. Jesús Guanche, there are more than 90 religious music and dance groups registered by the Consejo Nacional de Casas de Cultura (CNCC) [National Council of Houses of Culture NCHC]. There is also the ancestral wisdom of these religions which can enrich the knowledge of our visitors. Tourism helps our values to be understood. Sometimes a look at others makes it easier to look at ourselves.

RMLG: How is all this connected to the NCHC (National Council of Houses of Culture)?

CHRF: I place great importance on the houses of culture and other centers like the municipal museums, because they can serve as links between tourism institutions and the religious community keeper of the heritage. The idea is to bring tourism to these manifestations and not the other way around. The houses of culture and the museums are linked to entities and influential religious leaders that promote community projects aimed at developing values. Thus their importance as bridges to tourism and watchers of any negative impacts in this relationship. Community institutions are well-versed on our heritage and can protect it.

RMLG: What are religious visas about?

CHRF: As of 2004, the George W. Bush administration left only a very narrow passageway for US citizens to travel to Cuba: it was the religious passageway. Licenses were given to religious groups to travel to Cuba provided they did not engage in any other activity except religion. It is a well-known fact that this modality has been utilized or politically manipulated by the US government against Cuba. But what is most important is that many of these groups have shown solidarity. Many Americans who visited Cuba this way have realized that Cuban reality is very different from the way slanderous propaganda portrays our country. For these exchanges the Cuban state has established –through MINREX [Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs] — that anyone travelling from the US to Cuba with a religious license must have a religious visa backed by a Cuban religious institution.

RMLG: You mentioned some stores that sell religious merchandise. Could you comment further?

CHRF: I only know of one State-owned store named Orishas; someone told me there are others but I haven’t seen them. The one I do know sells white clothes, soup bowls, umbrellas, mats, images, etc. In my view if these articles are not presented as sacred objects, there is no contradiction with the secular nature of the state because a state-owned institution must not commercialize any religious objects or symbols. That does not apply to privately-owned stores that have obviously flourished in the last few months more than ever before.