by Dr Heather Skinner and Pepé Soomers
In a special issue of the International Journal of Tourism Anthropology focusing on “Niche Tourism and Residents’ Well-Being in Island Destinations” Dr Heather Skinner, IPM Senior Fellow and Chair of the IPM’s Visiting Places Special Interest Group, and Pepé Soomers, an independent researcher and member of the spiritual community in the small village of Arillas situated in the North West of the Greek island of Corfu, have written an article based on their research into the way spiritual tourism has had a transformational effect on the place and its residents.
Skinner, H. and Soomers, P. (2019) ‘Spiritual tourism on the island of Corfu: Positive impacts of niche tourism versus the challenges of contested space’ International Journal of Tourism Anthropology, 7(10), pp. 21-39. DOI: 10.1504/IJTA.2019.098099
Corfu is a relatively small island, only 64km in length and 32km at its widest point, with a permanent resident population of around 120,000, 40% of which live in the main town. The island, situated between the East of the boot of Italy, and West of the border between Greece and Albania, has attracted tourists since the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, since the boom time of the 1980s and early 1990s there has been a decline in numbers of tourists visiting the island. Those that do visit, especially those taking All-Inclusive packages, are spending less time and money in local tourism-related businesses such as restaurants, tavernas, bars and shops. The tourist season that used to see resorts all across the island full of holidaymakers from April to October is now basically reduced to the high season of July and August in many places.
As many Mediterranean destinations see the need to move away from the mass tourism sun sea and sand model, they are seeking new niche markets. Spiritual tourism and wellness tourism are the two most important niche segments in the growing and higher spending cultural tourism market. United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) stated in 2007 that spiritual tourism was one of the fastest growing of these niche segments. The term “spiritual tourism” does include religious tourism, but also includes any form of tourism where the main motivation to travel is to engage in activities offering some form of spiritual benefit.
The Corfiot resort of Arillas has attracted spiritual tourists since the first wave of Sanyassins, followers of a particular form of Osho Buddhism, started arriving around 1990. The development and growth of this niche was organic, not planned. The resort now hosts 6 spiritual centres, with 3 others located nearby. These centres attract between 25-150 people per week, although festivals and special events can attract up to 500 visitors. Arillas has ‘around 400–500 permanent residents from around 46 families, and a tourist season bed capacity of 1,000–1,200. This compares with the more mass tourism resort of Sidari, only around 10 km away, that has a permanent population of around 250 people, yet a tourism season capacity of 16,000 beds.’ (p27). This means that any effects of tourism development in Arillas are felt more closely by its residents. The resort also does not have many large hotels, and most of the resort’s accommodation providers act independently rather than relying on tour operators for their business. The development of the niche market for spiritual tourism in Arillas has made a great difference to this resort and has had a positive impact in terms of income for local businesses. For example, the German speaking spiritual tourism market alone has contributed additional revenue of between 20-30% to the resort. Spiritual tourism to Arillas has also helped contribute to extending the tourism season. ‘Local business people had begun to complain that their “regular” guests had difficulty booking their holidays in the high season because the spiritual tourists attending “alternative” events and activities had booked the resort’s limited accommodation’ (p. 28). Because of this, managers of the spiritual centres began to schedule many of their special events in the ‘shoulder’ months, with 3 major festivals being moved out of the high season and rescheduled in September.
The article is based on an analysis of direct observations made by members of the Sanyassin community, archive evidence from articles published on websites in the public domain, in-depth interviews with members of the business community, and analysis of relevant comments made on a resort-based Facebook group. Our findings show that this growth in numbers of spiritual tourists has led to distrust and hostility amongst the place’s various stakeholders that include local Corfiot residents, business owners, expatriates and the mainstream tourists, many of whom are regular returning visitors to the destination. While some of the expatriate community are also members of the spiritual community who now reside and often own businesses in the village, most are not. These are often ‘former holidaymakers who have seen “their” resort change, and many do not like it. They also feel the behaviour of some spiritual tourists is disrespectful to local Corfiots’ (p28) leading to comments in the resort’s Facebook group such as these:
‘It happens every year, the Dippy Hippy Germans arrive and glide around the place in flowing cheese cloth, completely off their heads and have no regard for the locals, getting nude and doing yoga on the family beaches in front of the restaurants instead of walking up to the nudist beach!!!’
‘Naked yoga on the beach is not respecting the Greek way of life’ (p. 29)
These sentiments are also echoed by some mainstream tourists to Arillas:
‘I for one have been going to Arillas for over 21 years now and more and more of them are doing there [sic] chanting on the beach and there definitely is more volume … I’m not against them, but sometimes you can feel that they are taking over the village as if it were their sacred place’.
‘I’m very easy-going, but the only thing that annoys me is the fact that they completely take over and dominate the place (p. 33).
Some of the festivals and special events involve drumming and chanting, which residents feel disturbs the general peace of this small resort, and laws regarding noise levels not seeming to apply to the spiritual community:
‘Last year they had one of their drum banging sessions that started at 21.00 hrs and went on through the night until 08.00 hrs the following day. This was held out in the open and could be heard all the way in Afionas. Why is it all the bars and hotels have to reduce their volume at midnight so as not to disturb people in the hotels, who have retired for the evening, yet these inconsiderate ‘Free Thinking’ people (from any country) get away with disturbing the peace and quiet that Arillas is all about?’ (p. 29)
Moves have been made by the spiritual centres to open their doors to the local community, but that has been mainly met with a general reluctance. ‘What you see in general in villages like Arillas is a lack of communication between stakeholders and a reluctance when it comes to innovation and to collaboration … The well-established and trained business people snub the Gurus (this is how they call them) because they realise that the Gurus “drive away” their high-end clients simply by their appearance, their attitude, etc. … Some other businessmen consider the “Gurus” to be a lifeline in the economic crisis’ (p. 32). Spiritual tourism has, in the main, been developed by foreign individuals from outside the local Corfiot community. Indeed, ‘the Arillas [business] society is divided with different opinions from the locals but also from the English and German expats who live here and the “spiritual” businessmen’ (p. 32). Some even worry that the local Orthodox religion in threatened by the growth of spiritual tourism in the resort.
‘The key issues regarding the growth of spiritual tourism in Arillas, and its effect on resident’s well-being can be seen summarised by the views of one local Greek businessman:
Have they bothered to ask the business owners who have guests that come for the peace a quiet? I certainly don’t object to a few meditation or yoga groups but the reality is that they have taken over half the resort and are changing, not only the identity, but the dynamic of the area and that can’t be permitted … One event with drums is acceptable but multiple dates with drums chanting and screaming isn’t going to happen!!’ (pp. 33-34).
This article shows how lack of communication between key stakeholder groups can cause mistrust and tension between those attempting to develop a niche spiritual tourism market and others in a resort.
‘While evidence suggests that focusing on developing niche tourism can bring positive impacts to a place, even turning around the fortunes of a tourism destination that is losing market share due a decline in mass tourism, there are many challenges to be faced when local communities are reluctant to adopt and embrace change. This leads to destinations becoming contested spaces where residents’ well-being needs to be considered not only in financial terms, but also in terms of the impact of physical and societal changes brought about by these developments’ (p.23).
The article has also highlighted that this tourism development has sometimes been perceived to be contrary to residents’ wellbeing. The IPM espouses that ‘Tourists and day visitors are important stakeholders in the places they visit – but their interests, and that of the tourism industry, need to be addressed in a balanced way with those of the residents whose place it is. The IPM’s Visiting Places Special Interest Group adopts the principles of Responsible Tourism which is about making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit, in that order’. Many Arillas residents and local business people welcome the additional financial revenues brought in by spiritual tourists to the resort, whereas some are more ambivalent, and others are in opposition to its further growth and development. To overcome infrastructure challenges, the article proposes that there is much more scope to spread out special events devoted to spiritual tourists to fill the time between late March and early November when there are direct international flights to the island. This will put less strain on bed capacity at peak times and provide additional income outside of the high season to local accommodation providers. To overcome business challenges the Arillas Business Association must become much more proactive in involving members of the business owning expatriate community into their discussions and decision making. The spiritual centres should persist in attempting to draw in members of the local community, for example by holding events outside of the high season aimed at the local community, and also by listening to legitimate concerns about aspects of their activities. To overcome market challenges, there is a general need for better education and training of tourism and hospitality providers across the island, especially if the island’s fortune and future for tourism development on Corfu is to rest with various niche markets. The Municipality should prioritise this, along with a clear articulation of its’ aims and objectives for niche tourism in a detailed tourism strategy for a sustainable future. These recommendations do not relate only to one small village on one small Greek island, but can also be generalised to other similar island destinations and other destinations across the Mediterranean that are similar challenges.