Before flying to my Santa Fe, N.M., resort, I received a list of at least 20 activities available during my stay. Yoga Nidra. Zen Qi Flow. Sound Healing Journey. Meditation in Motion. Temazcal Sweat Lodge. Petroglyph Art Hike. Awakening the Elements Within. Chicken Chats.
I circled the boxes for hiking, chi gong, visual arts -- and put a question mark next to chicken chats. I was laying the groundwork for my first foray into spiritual tourism, to explore what is one of the fast-growing segments of the travel industry -- and maybe return more rested and centered.
Spiritual tourism encompasses not just traditional pilgrimages, but also trips designed to restore gratitude and calm, to explore inner life -- to touch the soul.
Searching for answers to life's big questions, travelers increasingly are setting forth on journeys within. These seekers are a 21st century version of the religious pilgrims of old, but instead of heading to Jerusalem or Mecca, they are flying to specialty retreat and wellness centers, monasteries, natural wonders and beyond.
Countries across the globe are eyeing spiritual and religious tourism with intense interest. The United Nations World Tourism Organization held its first conference on "spiritual tourism for sustainable development" in 2013. It estimates that 330 million people visit religious sites each year, and spiritual tourists are among the ranks.
"We can see this burgeoning growth (in spiritual tourism)," said Daniel Olsen, a professor of geography at Brigham Young University who researches religious tourism. "People have always traveled for spiritual reasons but it's been tied to religion. Today people are seeking purpose in life, but not always within that religious structure."
That analysis resonated with what I learned from seekers I met during my New Mexico stay.
"I've always taken care of other people, now I need to find out about myself," explained a woman I met at my resort, Sunrise Springs Spa Resort. "What's my next step in life? Where do I go from here?"
As a religion reporter, I was curious about this trend. But where to go? I'm wary of New Age wu wu such as crystal or aura readings. I'm incapable of countless hours of meditation or yoga. And I needed to stay in the United States for budget reasons. (Although "Monk for a Month" in Thailand was tempting.) So I scouted online for "best spiritual retreats" and boom. Options galore.
The Sunrise Springs Spa caught my eye. The tranquil 70-acre resort outside Santa Fe is described online as a "sacred, nurturing destination spa where you define the experience you want."