As many as 330m people travel for religious reasons each year, according to a UN World Tourism Organisation estimate from December 2014, forming a significant market for countries with attractions of spiritual or sacred value. These trips include pilgrimages, as well as sightseeing trips to important historical and religious sites throughout the year. Additionally, a 2018 report by IGI Global stated that it is assumed that some 25% of travellers are interested in this form of tourism.

Global revenue from faith-based tourism is projected to total $15.1bn in 2023, according to market analysis firm Future Market Insights, and this could reach $41bn by 2033. In addition to supporting job creation and local economies, religious tourism is helping spur investment in logistics infrastructure, preservation and wider recreational offerings.

Boosting Connectivity

In areas that already experience sizeable inflows of religious tourists, new strategies and infrastructure projects are helping to prevent over-tourism while enabling growth. In India, which boasts important sites for a number of faiths, religious tourism flows have reached record highs. In August 2022 travel operator Thomas Cook reported it had seen a growth of 15% in such tours compared to pre-Covid-19 pandemic levels. Pilgrims include both domestic and foreign tourists, as well as those from the country’s large diaspora.

International arrivals to Saudi Arabia are driven by participants in the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. The Kingdom hosted 17.5m international tourists in 2019, 2.5m of which gathered in Makkah for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Although arrival numbers fell during the pandemic, as the Kingdom limited the number of pilgrims to 1000 in 2020 and saw fewer than 60,000 in 2021, they have since started to recover, with 926,000 people participating in 2022. A goal of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 economic blueprint is to host 30m religious tourists in 2030, part of wider efforts to attract 100m domestic and international tourists annually by that same year. Bahrain’s Labour Law entitles Bahraini Muslim employees a one-time full paid leave of 21 days to perform the pilgrimage, while non-Bahraini Muslim employees who have worked for an employer for five consecutive years are entitled to a one-time, 14-day paid leave.

To improve the visitor experience and mitigate the undesirable effects of over-tourism, Saudi Arabia is undertaking a number of construction projects, such as the $31bn redevelopment of King Abdulaziz International Airport to triple its passenger capacity. Slated for completion in 2031, the expansion plans include a dedicated Hajj and Umrah terminal.

The Kingdom is working to promote the Umrah pilgrimage − which can be performed throughout the year – in an effort to mitigate overcrowding and other key issues. Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics reported that 24.7m people participated in the Umrah pilgrimage in 2022. Visitors to the Kingdom with a tourist visa through the country’s e-visa programme are allowed to perform the Umrah.

MENA Initiatives

Other countries in MENA are restoring and preserving sites with historical and spiritual importance, which could help boost international arrivals. Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced in July 2022 that it would renovate the town of Al Wadi in the Sinai Peninsula that is home to the fortified monastery of Deir El Wadi.

These developments are part of a wider tourism initiative being undertaken by Egypt known as the Great Transfiguration Project, the aim of which is to develop sites in the Sinai Peninsula to attract spiritual and recreational tourism to the area. First announced in 2020, plans include the further development of the area around St. Catherine’s Monastery to improve tourism offerings, as well as the development of an airport. Meanwhile, Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has begun work on the first phase of a tourism trail that will stretch from Mount Nebo in the west of the country to the Jordan Valley, passing through various sites of spiritual significance for Christians.

Regional Resilience

Faith-based tourism is a key driver of sector growth, with religious attractions responsible for a large portion of arrivals in certain markets, especially during pilgrimages and festivals. The Indian state of Gujarat, for example, saw tourist inflows reach 55m in 2018, although this figure dropped to 24.5m in 2021 due to the pandemic. India is also home to the Kumbh Mela, an important religious festival in Hinduism that is considered one of the largest religious gatherings globally, as it attracted 200m visitors to Uttar Pradesh State in 2019, with some 50m participating during the celebration’s most auspicious day.

Some states in Mexico are targeting religious tourism as a potential strategic growth segment. For example, the state of Jalisco is home to the Cathedral Basilica of San Juan de los Lagos, which attracts more than 7m visitors each year, with the end of the pilgrimage at the beginning of February accounting for an estimated 2m visitors alone. Festivities surrounding days celebrating patron saints are key drivers of tourism revenue for hotels, restaurants and other local services in Mexico.

According to the estimates provided by Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism, 40m people a year participate in pilgrimages on a national scale, generating around $1.1bn in revenue. In Brazil, various states have established itineraries to drive visits to religious sites, such the churches of Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The country hosts more than 200 religious events each year, including the procession of Círio de Nazaré in the city of Belém, Pará State, which was attended by 2.5m people in 2022. In 2019 religious tourism generated an estimated $15bn.

Technological Transformation

Mirroring the acceleration of digitalisation during the pandemic, technology is beginning to both support and influence the development of religious tourism.

Backed by, a global travel distribution technology platform, Saudi Arabia-based Zamzam. com is an online travel agency platform dedicated to religious travel. The company specialises in Umrah travel services, including a range of offerings such as visas, flights and sightseeing packages.

In September 2022 Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah launched Nusuk Hajj, an official digital platform to facilitate the planning of visits to Makkah and Medina for religious purposes, in line with the Vision 2030 Pilgrim Experience Programme. In early 2023 Saudi national telecommunications provider stc installed 92 broadcast towers in the Holy Mosque in Makkah – as well as seven communication towers over 1.5m sq metres – as part of efforts to boost the digital infrastructure in the city and provide greater connectivity to pilgrims.