We want to offer a broad spectrum of spiritual experiences
Can inviting tourists into a spiritual sanctuary destroy its very foundation? Ben Bowler, co-founder of Monk for a Month and its umbrella organization, World Weavers, shares his strategies on maintaining the authenticity of spiritual tourism while working to expand it on a global scale.
Can explain what exactly is spiritual tourism?
Spiritual tourism is still being defined. In fact, the UNWTO held a conference in 2013 in Ninh Binh, Vietnam, to discuss that very topic.
From our perspective we would talk about spiritual travel as opposed to spiritual sightseeing, so it’s really about taking a deeper experience in the context of an existing faith tradition.
Who is typically attracted to this type of program?
People come here to take instruction in Buddhism and they throw themselves into the experience. They take the vows, shave their hair, shave their eyebrows, do the alms. People are coming from the four corners of the world because they are curious about Buddhism, or maybe are Buddhists already, or maybe they just like the idea of living in a Thai temple for a few weeks.
What do you think most people hope to get out of this type of travel experience?
The experience is pretty profound for a lot of people. They live in a different culture in such an enclosed setting and have space and time to reflect on their lives and to take some time out.
Do people ever end up becoming a permanent part of the monastery?
Yes, people have stayed. Some of our guests ended up staying and becoming program facilitators, some people have stayed in the temple long term. Others have come back for a second or third trip.
Discover more about authenticity and spiritual tourism in our video exclusive with Ben Bowler.
Are there other similar programs out there that you used as your model?
It was sort of an inspired idea; it wasn’t built upon anything else. The only thing we could find that was similar was a temple stay program in Korea which is more like stay a night, drink the tea. It’s a great program, but not really in depth and much shorter term.
How has the presence of tourists impacted the monks in the program?
When we started in Thailand, it was under the direction of the abbot who is in charge of the temple. From our experience, all of the Thai monks thought it was great because it was an opportunity for them to show their religion for people who might be curious or interested. Even the communities around the temple were really proud to have people coming from all over the world to learn about their culture and heritage. Now the program runs in Himalayan India and all reports from the monks are extremely enthusiastic.
How do you avoid over-commercialization of your program even as it grows in popularity?
The geography has prevented that from happening. We don’t see too much of a risk of it turning into a Disneyland kind of experience with thousands of people at the gates. But that would be a problem if we were in a major capital city and running a similar kind of program.
Do you have any concerns about how fast tourism is growing in Asia?
I’m no expert on tourism or travel. We use travel for a different purpose, which is personal development, spiritual development, forming bonds between different cultures, and creating a sense of a greater unity of what it means to be human.
What are your plans for the future of spiritual tourism?
We started this as a hobby, rather opportunistically in Thailand, but certainly we want to continue to scale it up. So we’re really looking now to running multiple spiritual tourism programs, including indigenous spirituality and multi-faith projects in various contexts around the world, both in the Eastern and Western hemispheres. We want to give everyday people an opportunity to explore everything that this world has to offer in terms of our collective spiritual heritage.
That brings us back to the topic of authenticity: If you’re expanding the programs, will that impact the product?
Small is beautiful so we don’t want hundreds, or even dozens, of people on a program. But we would like to have 20 or 30 different products available for people to explore. We want to offer a broad spectrum of spiritual experiences so people can select what speaks to them at that time in their life.
What do you hope will be your legacy in the travel and tourism industry?
I would love for World Weavers to be known for offering real authentic spiritual experiences that promote the universal nature of spirit while also promoting the kinship of all humanity. Our goal is to build bridges and to offer inspiration back to the materialistic, secular world that we live in.