Buddhist Tourism in Asia

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Courtney Bruntz, Brooke Schedneck
Contemporary Buddhism
  • Honolulu: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , March
     266 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Heralded as the first in-depth volume about the dynamics and specifics of Buddhist travel and tourist destinations, Buddhist Tourism in Asia, edited by Courtney Bruntz and Brooke Schedneck, offers access to a wide range of contemporary issues and country-specific adaptations. Tourism is understood to be a transnational, global phenomenon. Investigating its impact on a tradition as heterogeneous, widespread, and contested as modern Buddhism promises to identify not only local peculiarities but also common features in dealing with modernity. The proposed definition of tourism also includes forms of religiously motivated journeys. The authors highlight how tourism and pilgrimage, two modes of travel that previously have often been described as opposites, are “muddled by social realities, which do not neatly separate the sacred and the profane” (3). They resemble each other in their utilization of infrastructure, their search for extraordinary experiences, and their sometimes harmful consequences on the local population and environment.

The contributions are framed by three theoretical perspectives. When referring to Buddhist imaginaries and place-making, the editors define it as the shared imaginations of a locality which “become part of collective understanding because of their efficacy and ability to be replicated” (6). The chapters in this section explore how preconceived ideas about Buddhism shape the encounters of practitioners and religious authorities, (non-Buddhist) inhabitants and tourists, as well as other (secular) stakeholders in tourism development. The case studies focus on the construction of a specific locality which can be very narrowly defined—the assumed place of the Buddha’s enlightenment (David Geary), a Singaporean garden (John N. Miksic), a Thai temple (Schedneck), or two holy mountains in development (Justin R. Ritzinger). The authors show how contrasting ideals about the meaning and usage of these spaces emerged, among other things, through the development of tourist infrastructure.

The second section of the volume deals with the dynamics of secularization. It examines how sacrality functions as “a fluctuating classification, influenced by travelers, religious specialists, and mediators of a site” (9). The concept of the sacred therefore is employed in relation to a specific place, and perceived in accordance or opposition with an imagined secular sphere. The case studies touch upon package deals on pilgrimages (John A. Marston), remembrance and Buddhist practice in Cambodia (Matthew J. Trew), temple-led tourism initiatives to avoid government control in China (Bruntz), as well as processes of heritagization of temples and pilgrimage routes in Japan (Ian Reader). A noticeable commonality is the disintegration of the binary between sacred and secular. It is shown that they are not negotiated by easily categorizable opposing forces (e.g., religious authorities versus government tourism boards).

When dealing with commodification and its consequences, both contributors and editors stress that it is not a modern phenomenon. Religiously motivated commerce and internal economies of Buddhism can be regarded as the norm within religious history, as “Buddhist sites have always been a part of surrounding market economies” (16). Instead, the contributors ask how Buddhist involvement in economical processes differs from the past due to the conditions of modernity. Case studies explore critiques of religious authorities in China (Brian J. Nichols), the organization of speed dating events in Japanese temples (Matthew Mitchell), as well as the employment of Buddhism as a selling point for tourism in Ladakh, India (Elizabeth Williams-Oerberg).

Each of the contributions has a clear line of argument, following one of the aforementioned theoretical orientations. Regarding commodification, the editors mention in their foreword that it is “directly related to imaginaries, place-making, and processes of secularization” (13). One might argue that this high degree of interconnectedness might make the separation into three parts seemingly arbitrary, since themes of commodification, secularization, and imaginaries are present in all of the articles. Taking the opportunity to specifically explore these links and reciprocal effects either in an afterword or in further contributions focused on theory might have added another layer of insight and reflection.

The protagonists we encounter in this volume are a heterogeneous group. Some articles center the views and aims of Buddhist authorities (Nichols), some emphasize the involvement of local Buddhist laity (Schedneck), and others focus on government agencies and other actors who might not define themselves as Buddhist but who interact with its images and semantics (Geary, Miksic). A strikingly valuable feature of this volume is its rooting in social realities as well as current media practices, such as the employment of blogs and social media platforms to promote tourist destinations (Bruntz), the recording of video footage (Marston), and the phenomenon of social media sharing and its impact on the interactions with a locality (Trew).

All in all, the book offers useful insights into the field, as well as countless possibilities for the development of new research questions and further inquiries—for example, focusing on the impact of social media on the marketing of tourist destinations, the dynamics of global power imbalances in the field of tourism, or gendered experiences and connotations with Buddhist localities. Finally, a whole range of questions pertaining to the dependance on tourism and its possible evolutions have been raised by growing concerns around the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if the present and future of tourism are uncertain at the time of writing this review, Buddhist Tourism in Asia provides a valuable snapshot of its most recent past.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura Brandt is a doctoral candidate and research fellow at the Institute for Religious Studies, Heidelberg University.

Date of Review: 
June 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Courtney Bruntz is assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and director of Asian studies at Doane University.

Brooke Schedneck is assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.


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