The practice of making a religious pilgrimage or traveling to some place for spiritual purposes is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it particular to any historical era. But modern “tourism” is something else again, defined by a very specific economic and cultural logic. When the reasons people do tourism are spiritual, then perhaps we can speak of “spiritual tourism.”
I distinguish two types of spiritual tourism. First is the type practiced by persons who travel to visit a sanctuary or sacred site, and also by those who attend a religious center to take a course or simply want to get to know a place. This first type of spiritual tourism forms part of a spiritual market that serves spiritual seekers who consume the goods and services offered by tourism companies. Sometimes the products offered are “new” spaces or packages, such as recently built holistic centers. They may also be old cultic practices that have been commodified or “touristified” by tourist agencies, such as trips to the Holy Land. Today there exists an entire infrastructure built around offering spiritual services to tourists who travel the world for the sake of consuming this type of goods or experiences.
The second type of tourism can be understood as a spiritual experience that takes the form of a “journey.” This type is clearly for people who understand their own spiritual lives as a kind of journey; it is the sort of interior dimension of tourism that Levinas has spoken of to some extent. One frequently hears eloquent descriptions of these journeys in the travelers’ narratives; we hear, for example, that “the trip was very good” or “it was quite an adventure.” Such expressions are used by participants to describe different spiritual activities even when there is no physical journey to another geographical space. In many cases they are spoken by persons who smoke marijuana in their garden or who attend yoga practice in a studio close to their home. In this second sense of spiritual tourism, spirituality acquires an aura of travel and is understood as such. It becomes a journey characterized by the kinds of wellness, self-modernity, and medicalization that I have described in previous articles.
Researcher María Albert Rodrigo offers us a very interesting study of spiritual tourism. According to her, tourism in modern societies has helped to unite human groups that share similar interests and motivations, but it has done so to the detriment of the older forms of social cohesion, like religion and ideology. Rodrigo argues that tourism in our societies has begun to operate as a substitute for religion and ideology, which is to say that it operates, among other things, as a matrix that produces subjectivities. Author Paula Sibilia has much to say about the contemporary construction of new subjectivities in her book La intimidad como espectáculo [Intimacy as Spectacle] (2008). The Argentine anthropologist describes how the subjectivizing process that existed prior to the technological invasion—what her friend Flavia Costa later understood as the Tecnoceno (2021)—gave way to the current process, which reinvents the intimate as something public. Whereas modernity gave us the stereotype of the intimist reader who builds her identity through dialogue with herself through the text, the current era of social networks and smartphones does not build subjectivities from what we experience interiorly, but rather from the intimacy that is put on public display when we exhibit ourselves as so much spectacle.
Mexican researchers Luis Jaime González Gil and Salvador Iván Rodríguez Preciado give us a good example of this construction of new subjectivities by the logic of the spectacle and how it is related to technology and tourism. Their work analyzes the figure of the travel blogger, a “character who can be defined as a microcelebrity in virtue of the dynamics and symbolic economies in which he participates. … Using sociodigital platforms, he describes his journeys as part of his lifestyle and work.” Such forms of subjectivity are self-exploitative, in Byung-Chul Han’s sense; that is, in trying to escape the regular economic work cycle, they market themselves through social media, using their journeys as basic material for ends that are almost always narcissistic.
How does this new subjectivity of spectacle, bolstered by tourism and technology, manifest itself in contemporary spiritualities? A glance through Instagram posts allows us to discover a newly emergent subjectivity in the photos of practitioners of yoga or meditation (mostly mindfulness) and in those of tourists visiting sacred places that range from the Sistine Chapel to monasteries in Thailand. In view of this new subjectivity, I propose using the name “spiritual journey blogger” for those persons who do not necessarily “journey” to other countries, but who still apply the term “journey” to their spiritual practices, and who use social media platforms to celebrate themselves, whether through photos, stories, bios, streamings, “phrases of arrival,” or the like.
As Sibilia indicates when discussing “spectacle” identities, the spiritual journey bloggers may represent certain social classes, ages, and geographies, but their visibility and social influence are without a doubt increasingly present. The spiritual journey bloggers operate with the logic of self-modernity: “While a journey like this may offer many things, what they point out as fundamental is personal well-being, inner growth, the search for oneself, etc., and these can happen either through connecting with oneself or the environment or through the practice of yoga, meditation, etc.” We can also see a clear tendency toward “experientialism,” that is, the reduction of spirituality to mere experience. That is the form spiritual tourism usually takes.
Interesting themes of gender are woven into the symbolic struggles among erotic, symbolic, and “spiritual” forms of capital (inner peace, freedom, life flow, etc.). Traditional gender clichés are repeated, but now they appear under the facade of progressivism. Such notable examples as full-body photos of women practicing yoga and photos of men practicing meditation highlight the traditional attribution of eros to women and of intellect to men.
The spiritual journey bloggers portray themselves as such through their postings on social networks; they sell themselves by forging an identity that depends on the quality of their photos, their stories, and their platforms. Theirs is a completely heteronomous “spectacle” identity. To capitalize on that identity and to earn real money from their spiritual journeys, whether these be physical trips or mere spiritual exercises. they must “produce” themselves as merchandise, constantly uploading new materials and exposing their intimate selves for their followers. They may not even feel a need to “earn money” because, as I already mentioned, other types of capital are available in the social media networks of these spiritual journey bloggers.
In the same way that the enlightened arhat was the model of spirituality for early Theravada Buddhism, that virginity was for medieval women, and that martyrdom for the first Christians, so today, in an era when life is digitized and experience is mediated by merchandise, these spiritual journey bloggers begin by defining themselves as spiritual molds. Many of them become authentic life models for their followers, who feel inspired by the content they consume on their social networks—we seem to be seeing a new form of 21st-century discipleship. People do not realize that much of what is displayed on the platforms of these spiritual journey bloggers is not what it seems; it is mere performance, an enactment that hides the difficulties of trying to live life by selling it to the internet. The freedom, peace, and enlightenment that they exhibit owes more to good marketing than to spiritual fulfillment.
Not only is this emergent subjectivity making rapid advances on social networks, but “spiritual practice” centers are being built that combine gym, church, yoga, meditation, and photo sessions, all ready to be uploaded immediately to Instagram. Spaces like these or other manifestations of spiritual tourism are increasing in creative and unprecedented ways. Their goal is the market, and their product is intimacy as spectacle.
Spiritual tourism takes the form of social and economic practices that reinforce the kind of spiritual narrative we might expect in our neoliberal society. No doubt it contains certain valuable elements, such as a sense of community or identity and easier access to previously cryptic spiritual teachings. Still, I believe that it is necessary to delve deeper into the nature of this emergent subjectivity. As I said in my last article, it may be giving rise to spiritual subjects by attacking their ego, but at the same time reinforcing their individuality and, along with it, the world-system that sustains it.
 María Albert Rodrigo, “La búsqueda espiritual a través del turismo. Su articulación desde el lado de la oferta”, in Cuadernos de Turismo, n. 45, 2020, p. 26.
 Luis Jaime González Gil and Salvador Iván Rodríguez Preciado, “Libertad burocratizada: gestión, producción y mercantilización de las subjetividades desde la figura digital del travel blogger”, in Virtualis, 12 (22), año 2021, p. 96.
 Alberto Rodrigo, “La búsqueda espiritual a través del turismo”, 29.
 For more information on “experientialism” see Jorge N. Ferrer, Espiritualidad creativa. Una visión participativa de lo transpersonal (Barcelona: Kairós, 2003) 45-72.
[Image by Rachel Scott on Pixabay]