In the 14th century a motley crew of English gathered together on a walking pilgrimage to Canterbury.
The scribe, Geoffrey Chaucer, opens a lead light window on the diversity of people seeking salvation or spiritual enlightenment by pilgrimage; he paints the bawdy Wife of Bath and her five husbands, The Prioress and her religious bigotry, the Lawyer, The Parson and more. All are welcome on this journey, both the deeply devout and those hoping to ascend to heavens lower rungs.
Jump ahead six centuries and airplanes, trains and buses carry more than 1.6 million souls to Mecca each year; another 5 million journey to Lourdes in France and more than 4 million to the Vatican museums, the advent of high speed travel offering more people the opportunity for pilgrimage.
It is not only recognized holy grounds that attract worshippers. Graceland in Memphis, home of Elvis, has its fair share with over half a million worshippers of The King a year.
A tiny percentage of them actually do pray, these are The Presleyite Disciples, a group who hail Elvis as God.
This God making of Elvis may come off as a bit of a giggle to most people, however the beliefs of The Presleyite Disciples would be respected in Bali.
And that is why Bali is fast becoming an important center for spiritual tourism, according to Bali Tourism Board Chairman, Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya.
“Because of the philosophy of Hinduism, [spirituality] is open to everyone. Due to this Bali is becoming a destination for spiritualism – a place where people from around the globe can meet other people on a spiritual path.
In Bali, people can exercise their spiritual beliefs and learn more. This can be seen also in music, art and dance, these are all related to spiritualism,” says Wijaya.
Percentages of people visiting the aptly named Island of the Gods in search of enlightenment, when compared to those visiting for a good time on the beaches or in the clubs is unknown, says Wijaya, however the developing trend of hotels and villas to offer yoga, meditation or other cultural and spiritual pursuits is growing, if the marketing is anything to go by.
Many hotels and villas offer these stress reducing exercises daily, with some hotels established specifically for spiritual tourism.
“We don’t have data on numbers here for spiritual development.
People do come here for a combination of a holiday and spiritual learning, and of course for Bali’s scenery. But we believe more and more people are coming to Bali for these reasons. We see the tourism industry is now focusing on this,” says Wijaya.
He adds he is pleased to see this burgeoning direction in the province’s tourism sector, because spiritual tourism also demands a healthy environment if it is to succeed.
“The government here is also trying to ensure Bali becomes an eco-tourism destination. We currently have the 57th congress of geothermal power taking place here in Nusa Dua,” says Wijaya of potentially clean electricity generation on the island, but he would also like to see a halt on over development of the ever increasingly fragile local environment.
“We need to stop over development in Bali and maintain the province as a cultural tourism destination. Culture, religion and nature here are inextricably linked and I feel the most important role of the government currently is to make Bali more green, use more biologically clean technology, encourage farmers in organic farming and be aware of the potential for electricity generated geothermally,” says Wijaya of environmental protection as a foundation stone in spiritual tourism into the future.
He points succinctly to the difficulties faced in this task. “Controlling development is not only about enforcing the law, but about educating the people.
“We need to understand the needs of the local people and teach them how to have a better life in the future.
Planning must be regulated by the government and slow the issuance of building licenses to reflect true supply and demand.
“Bali has potentially 10 million tourists a year — there are just 3 million Balinese,” says Wijaya of a society that may, in the near future, be outnumbered three to one by visitors. Current figures are above 7 million, so already there are two visitors to every Balinese.
So valuable is spiritual tourism to Bali’s economy, Udayana University has a department under Professor Nyoman Sirtha dedicated to its study.
“I see this is good for Bali and the people visiting for self reflection and spiritual growth. We have 32 students on the cultural tourism program, which reflects the Hindu philosophy of Tri Hita Karana or humans to God, human to human and human to the environment,” says Sirtha who began studying yoga 13 years ago, suffering illness and stress.
Today, he has no doubt the practice does heal mind and body.
It is this healing found in spiritual connections that dean of the tourism department at Udayana University Pak Anom, believes can bring relief to a stressed world.
“The greeting in Bali is Om Santi Santi Santi. Om is God and Santi is peace. I hope in future, spiritualism in Bali is not only Hindu, but a spiritual place for all religions.
“I feel that perhaps as many as 50 percent of tourists to Bali come here for nature, yoga practice and spiritual growth,” said Anom who traces his roots back to Bali’s first sage, Markandeya who in the eighth century founded Bali’s mother temple, Besakih.
Like Chaucer’s pilgrims, travelers to Bali come in all religious shapes and sizes, with the same foibles of character and unexpected virtues; on the Island of the Gods the overarching Hindu philosophy of acceptance recognizes each makes their own path to Heaven. The Wife of Bath would be pleased.