A new paradigm in spiritual tourism marketing

By Dr. Farooq Haq, Associate Professor & Coordinator of Marketing (MBA & BBA), Faculty of Management, Canadian University Dubai

Travellers from diverse backgrounds have been pursuing spiritually-motivated tourism for centuries, yet the term only entered the commercial travel dictionary much more recently. Interest in religion and spirituality seems to have awakened following the terrible events of 9–11. The subsequent so-called wars on terror, along with various global crises, have further motivated people to join religious organizations, or otherwise enrich their spiritual lives by visiting sacred sites and destinations.

As parts of the world now start to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, people are beginning to restore their faith in the safety of global travel, and efforts to grow the tourism-related economy are accelerating once again. With a wealth of assets that attract significant numbers of spiritually-motivated tourists, how should destinations in this region be approaching the challenge of marketing these sites in a commercial yet respectful way?

Overcoming an unnatural alliance

Advertising and promotion is a vital component in attracting tourists to a destination, yet the virtue of spirituality and the business mindset of marketing make an unnatural, even uncomfortable, alliance for some. While people might consider the two to be incompatible, it should be recognized that marketing comes in many different forms. It’s a matter of fact that even the most dedicated pilgrimage destinations undertake significant marketing, whether these are overt and visible to consumers, or hidden in the backstage of destination management.

The billions of dollars the Saudi government earns from the Hajj every year is the result of cleverly crafted and implemented marketing strategies, just as it is in many pilgrimage destinations. The whole three-day ritual process injects huge sums of capital into the local economy and into the Saudi national economy, as the Hajjis purchase travel necessities, transportation, food, accommodation, and ritual guides.

Adopting a customer-oriented approach

Once we acknowledge that marketing is now a necessary tool for creating positive and satisfying experiences for all kinds of tourists, including spiritual tourists and pilgrims, we can address what tactics are most appropriate to this context. Critics have rejected the adoption of the traditional marketing mix concept, judging it as a static, rigid, and linear framework, that is too simplistic, unidimensional, and more theoretical than practical.

It is true that the traditional marketing mix is about production-oriented marketing, rather than customer-oriented marketing. To overcome the unease of marketing the spiritual experience as a product, the proposal now is for a paradigm shift to relationship marketing, which offers a realistic, flexible, and robust alternative that is orientated towards interaction rather than transaction-based marketing.

This relationship marketing approach is based on three elements:

1. Product

The product, in a relationship marketing context, consists of the destination assets that are accessible to tourists, including their physical features and experiential benefits. A relationship marketing strategy that is based around the product requires a move towards strategic market segmentation. This means relating the “product performance” to the visitors’ needs and investing in product development and improvement to build trust and loyalty with customers. This could mean creating physical infrastructure to better accommodate tourists or developing and deploying particular guest services that enhance the visitor experience.

2. People

People play an important role in relationship marketing linked to a service product. Spiritual tourism in particular involves several people who interact with the tourists at various points during the trip. Those people working to create visitor relationships need to be selected and trained so that they are able to meet tourists’ expectations. The category of “people” in this context runs from ritual guides, entertainers and artisans, religious advisers and prayer leaders, to hospitality providers, and security personnel in some cases.

Relationship marketing designed around the interaction between providers and customers, together with discounted pricing of packages for repeat customers, should benefit both the customer and the tourism operator, as satisfying experiences are co-created between the destination’s people and the religious or spiritual consumers who visit.

3. Partnerships

Partnerships enables relationship marketing to build operational efficiencies among the various stakeholders involved in the spiritual tourism industry. For partnerships to be successful, all partners on both the demand side and supply side must collaborate and benefit. The tourism industry typically includes both vertical and horizontal partnerships with both forward and backward integration.

Horizontal partnerships are based on cooperation between public and private operators and the providers of spiritual tourism products and services, while vertical partnerships are the result of partnerships between the operators and various stakeholders, including transport companies, hotels, insurance companies, and financial providers, such as banks and credit card companies. Relationship marketing for religious and spiritual tourism needs partnerships across both vertical and horizontal axes.

A future built on relationships

At a time when people are recovering from the turmoil of travel restrictions and diminished social contact, relationship building in tourism marketing is more important than ever. In a nutshell, the chapter presents an argument that all human beings are in quest of spirituality that is inclusive in nature. All respected religions offer different paths to reach these spiritual goals, some people consider their spiritual or religious path to be exclusive, which disrupts the global spiritual harmony. The experiential segment of the spiritual and religious tourist market now has the opportunity to lead the way in applying these three key elements – product, people, and partnerships – to build a successful relationship marketing model that can be mapped across the industry.

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