Tourism and spirituality

Spirituality in tourism is an increasingly important topic of interest to scholars. Findings from studies on spiritual experiences in tourism bring us closer to theoretical understandings of complex meanings and benefits individuals derive through travel. For managers and workers in the tourism sector, this type of research helps in better understanding visitor motivation and satisfaction, while at a broader level, the theme of spirituality plays a role in destination and product development.  Using an Australian based case study, Wray, Laing and Voigt (2010) for example, highlighted how spiritual values that underpin local communities play important roles in the overall development of specific alternate health and wellness destinations. Further, in a study of operators of wellness retreat centres, it was suggested that spiritualty is one of the core benefits sought by customers and that wellness retreat products and experiences are therefore often packaged under the theme of spirituality (Kelly, 2010). While adequately defining spirituality is challenging, it has been broadly interpreted as “the expression of one’s spirit or how one expresses him or herself as a human being (Braine, 1992,)”. Kelly (1995) further defines spirituality as “a deep sense of belonging, of wholeness, of connectedness, and of openness to the infinite” (pp.4-5). In essence, spirituality is closely linked to discussions on meaning of life and self-exploration and is generally seen as more than just a temporary, hedonic, experience.  Philosophers argue that because spirit is the essence of being human, and one’s spirituality is incorporeal, essentially spirituality concerns a human being’s individual search for meaning in life, which inevitably will be undertaken by all humans (Bahm, 1974).

The engaging and well written papers presented here shed light on this important topic. The study by Wilson et al. (2013) adopts a phenomenological qualitative approach to the study of spirituality in tourism.  The authors present an overview of an individual’s tourist journey. Through this overview they explain how individuals seek meaning and life purpose outside the self, their quests for meaning, and their experiences of transcendence and connectedness through travel. They argue that a phenomenological view may be a useful frame through which to further examine the personal meanings of travel as lived by people, both in religious and non-religious contexts and contextualised within the wider meaning of their lives. The paper by Matheson et al. (2014) on spirituality takes a more empirical, positivist perspective on the topic. The paper examines the role of spirituality in the context of visitor motivations rather than as an outcome of experiences. Apart from trialing questionnaire items on spiritual attitudes, the quantitative investigation aimed to uncover motivations for attending a festival in the United Kingdom and assessed if spirituality might be relevant in assessing visitor intentions. The authors found that spirituality and escape factors were extracted in principal components analysis and found those to be valid constructs in confirmatory factor analysis.

The two papers on volunteering (Pan, 2012; Wearing and McGehee, 2013) take on very different approaches but could also be linked to the topic of spirituality. The papers highlight the benefits individuals derive through volunteering while also acknowledging some adverse effects. In their major review piece, Wearing and McGehee (2013) point to well-established dichotomies in volunteer tourism research on self-interest and altruism and between volunteer tourism organizations seen as agents of change or simply a new version of commodification. Nevertheless, in terms of research on volunteer tourist experiences, the authors highlight streams of studies that imply there are linkages between volunteer tourist experiences and spirituality. The study by Broad (2003, p.63) for example found that “volunteers were able to go beyond the superficial interactions that travel is often restricted to,” resulting in personal growth and a changed worldview for volunteers. Such themes of profound, personal growth and changed worldviews resemble the transformative quality of spirituality, as defined by Bahm (1974), Braine (1992) and Kelly (1995). The study reported in the last of the four papers (Pan, 2012), further supports the spirituality and volunteering linkage. Amongst other motivations for volunteering, the authors’ study identified as an underlying motivation the spiritual like theme of a search for a new way of life and self-exploration. These conclusions were based on a qualitative study of motives of Taiwanese students to volunteer overseas and what they have learned from the trip (Pan, 2012).

Clearly, while very different in focus and scope, the papers stress the positive role of tourism in people’s lives. They challenge views of tourist experiences as frivolous, fleeting, hedonic encounters. The results from the studies reported can be re-enforced by findings from studies of skilled tourist experiences, like those of tourist participation in cultural, music and dance workshops. In one such study, tourists’ engagement in flamenco workshops was found to have profound, spiritual effects on participants (Matteucci, 2013). The contexts are obviously very different, however from the above findings we can conclude that certain types of tourist experiences offer spiritual rewards to those who travel that far surpass the hedonic treadmills of heightened positive emotions. As such, there is much scope for future research on this topic to refresh our understandings of tourist well-being (currently often defined in primarily affective, hedonic terms), existential authenticity in tourism, as well as tourist satisfaction and motivation. Fresh explorations of spirituality through studies like those reported above offer new perspectives on what makes some leisure experiences outside usual domiciles so powerful and memorable. 

By Sebastian Filep, PhD; University of Otago and Victoria University, Melbourne. Editorial Board member of Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management.


Bahm, A. (1974). Metaphysics: An introduction. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Books.

Braine, D. (1992).The human person: Animal and spirit. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Broad, S. (2003). Living the Thai life – a case study of volunteer tourism at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, Thailand. Tourism Recreation Research, 28 (3), 63–72.

Kelly, E. W. Jr. (1995) .Spirituality and religion in counseling and psychotherapy. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Kelly, C. (2010). Analysing wellness tourism provision: A retreat operators’ study [Special section]. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 17, 108–116.

Matheson, C. M., Rimmer, R. and Tinsley, R. (2014). Spiritual attitudes and visitor motiva-
tions at the Beltane Fire Festival, Edinburgh. Tourism Management, 44, 16–33.

Matteucci, X. (2013). Experiencing flamenco: an examination of a spiritual journey. In S. Filep and P. Pearce (Eds).Tourist Experience and Fulfilment: Insights from Positive Psychology. London: Routledge, 110-126.

Pan, T. (2012). Motivations of volunteer overseas and what have we learned – the experience of Taiwanese students. Tourism Management, 33(6), 1493–1501.

Wearing, S. and McGehee, N. (2013). Volunteer tourism: A review. Tourism Management, 38, 120–130.

Wilson, G. B., McIntosh, A. J. and Zahra, A. L. (2013). Tourism and spirituality: A phenomenological analysis. Annals of Tourism Research,42 (2), 150–168.

Wray, M., Laing, J. and Voigt, C. (2010). Byron Bay: An alternate health and wellness destination [Special section]. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 17, 158–166.