Sacred Snapshots

Locating the holy in a foreign land

| May 25, 2006


On its surface, a vacation to Las Vegas and a pilgrimage to Mecca couldn't be more different. Partaking of the former usually means succumbing to decadence, gambling, and sloth. The latter, meanwhile, represents the holiest of acts. But the treks may not be as different as they seem, George Pendle argues in an opinion piece for Bidoun.

The link between tourism and pilgrimage goes at least as far back as 1498, with the publication of Informacion for Pylgrymes unto the Holy Londe. The book, Pendle notes, is a precursor to today's travel guides, providing useful information for navigating a foreign land. Indeed, pilgrimages have been the cause of travel for centuries, gathering multitudes from far and wide.

Given that pilgrimage and tourism are historically linked, Pendle wonders if there is 'something of the sacred left in the tourist's experience today?' Eschewing an automatic condemnation of modern day tourism as wasteful and bloated, Pendle looks deeper and finds that tourists share the pilgrim's hope for transcendence and exultation. 'Tourists, like pilgrims, seek recreation in the fullest sense of the word.' The Ka'bah in Mecca and the Bellagio in Las Vegas both hold the promise of transcendence via 'union with place.'

A more explicit connection can be found in the West Bank, a place that's seen its fair share of pilgrims. A new breed of tourism has cropped up there that hovers somewhere between pilgrimage and secular revelry. Writing for DragonFire, Sara Toth reports that 'alternative tourism' -- reality tours of a place's political, cultural, and economic situation -- has taken hold in the area. It developed as an antidote to the failing pilgrimage tourism industry, which has fallen on hard times since the Israeli government constructed walls separating Israel from Palestinian territories.



While alternative tourism focuses on an area's social climate, such tours, argues Virginia Tech professor Nancy McGehee, turn out to be 'introspective experience[s],' with the tourist finding larger meaning for his or her life in the process of coming to know a place. Modern tourists, Pendle asserts, are 'forever communing with representations.' So, too, is the alternative tourist, whether touching a graffiti-laden wall or passing through a militarized checkpoint.

Go there >>Sight Seers