It’s obvious that tourism and religion have large overlap points. Since time immemorial, people make a pilgrimage to holy sites or on holy paths, which are meanwhile explored in addition to its religious significance also by the guests who do not believe. Immediately the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the many temples and mosques in the Asian and Arab world, the Temple of the Mormons in Salt Lake City, the Way of St. James, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the churches and monasteries in our own country comes to mind.
Sectarian visitors and residents do not like to be disturbed by “tourists” in the practice of their faith or even regarded as being zoo animals. Therefore, entrance fees are charged and otherwise public churches closed for worship. There are certain dress codes. To enter a synagogue, also non-believers need to wear a kippah. In mosques, the shoes must be removed. In Christian churches, shorts and miniskirts are inappropriate. There are so many examples that cannot be enumerated here, but the intersection of tourism and religion is always accompanied with respect and rule-following, which requires a high degree of sensitivity for this construct to work. That it is often not working is apparent and often causes resentment and misunderstanding.
But what happens when religion and tourism must exist together? The monastery Maria Laach at Laacher See in the Eifel region is dependent on tourism as an economic factor, because the monastery has to finance itself. Thus the monastery, in addition to its religious significance for the monks living there, occurs as an employer and maintains various own businesses, such as farms, a hotel, a publishing label, a book and art shop, a farm shop that sells organic produce from the connected lands, a guest wing and craft workshops (pottery, bookbinding, sculpture, ironwork). For these companies it is important that Maria Laach is also attractive as a day and overnight destination, but authentic enough that it is perceived as a monastery and religious site and not as a shopping mall with an attached church. Equally, the function of an active monk monastery is still in the foreground, as well as the pastoral care offered there. People who retire to a monastery have decided to dedicate their service completely to God and seek the silence, time for contemplation and seclusion. Noisy groups of tourists roaming the grounds of the convent and “go shopping” results in two worlds with two different desires clashing.
In order to create exactly this balancing act, COMPASS was commissioned by the monastery to develop a tourism strategy, on how Maria Laach can better position themselves to be more attractive for guests and include the businesses, but does not disturb the monastic life or affect it adversely.
Our experience has shown that the highest degree of authenticity is achieved when the monastery does not open itself more than they would like, but that the monastery prescribes the rules themselves. Here the demand does not necessarily determine the supply, but the monastery as an institution and the convent as a religious community dictate how much “tourism” may occur. This is particularly important in the communication with and coordination of bus tour groups, for guided tours on the grounds, but also for the quality and authenticity of the monastery’s products.
Nevertheless, and this perception was not easy at least for the monastery staff, the monastery has to have the same structures as any other tourist destination: A central marketing office, which combines a press office, event coordination, social media representative and contact for the monastic establishments at the same time. Transparent structures and clear communication are helpful not only for the guests who are interested in a religious destination, but also promote the need of those who yearn for peace, tranquility and contemplation. These two poles, demarcation and opening, must be handled sensitively by religious destinations in order to preserve the authenticity of the place and to prevent the selling of spiritual heritage.