Charismatic mega-churches have provided a fresh impetus for religious tourism in Zimbabwe. Prophet Walter Magaya of Prophetic Healing and Deliverance (PHD) Ministry is perfecting a T.B Joshua-model guest house which draws the faithful from several countries on a sustained basis. The United Family International (UFIC)'s annual Judgement Night, PHD's Night of Turnaround and Zaoga FIF's Deeper Life Conference house hundreds of thousands annually.Mainline and pentecostal churches which have made significant headway internationally, including Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) in Zimbabwe, Celebration Centre and Jabula New Life Ministries draw occasional delegates.
It is tempting to overlook internationally headquartered mainline churches as being buttered outside Zimbabwe but these also make a significant "return on faith". The Roman Catholic Church, which has been in Zimbabwe longer than any other denomination routinely promotes to the faithful its tercentenary shrines and holy places.
Denominations such as Anglican Church, Methodist Church in Zimbabwe, the Baptist Church and Salvation Army also make a significant return not just on their historical footprints but also multi-purpose convention centres.
Religious tourism, chiefly a form of tourism whereby people travel for pilgrimage, missionary, fellowship purposes is growing worldwide.
World over, Christian sites of interest feature the historical footprints of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostles, New Testament figures, early Christian, Oriental, Orthodox and Catholic sites, architectural treasures, Christian arts and artefacts.
Tourism and Hospitality Industry Deputy Minister Anastancia Ndhlovu told The Herald Review that religious tourism has provided a boon for tourism and now needs to be maximised.
"We need to take religious tourism seriously and make it a source of prosperity for our people while showing consideration for our history, diversity and pluralism," Cde Ndhlovu said.
She cited the earning power of religious tourism globally and said that Zimbabwe has inexhaustible potential to market and extend the reach of the sector.
"The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) recognises religious tourism as a segment that has grown the most in recent years, with pilgrims touring countries which are home to sacred places such as Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia," she said.
The first World Religious Tourism Conference revealed that $18 billion is realised annually from religious tourism. The UNWTO places religious tours made every year at 300 to 350 million.
"It is our hope that places of religious significance in our country can present themselves as iconic places of pilgrimages for all nations and nationalities. Religious tourism often exists side by side with nature tourism, heritage tourism, rural tourism and many other types of tourism," Cde Ndhlovu said.
Besides sustaining a fully fledged form of tourism, religious organisations are inherently well placed to create a conducive setting for the tourism and hospitality industry as a whole.
"The church is important to tourism because it preaches the values of love, tolerance and unity which are requisite for peace in a nation. The tourism sector thrives in a peaceful environment," Cde Ndhlovu added.
She explained how religion is also a tourism product on its own.
"Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and Nigeria draw significant revenue from religious tourism. There is always an influx of people visiting various pastors in Nigeria. For every 10 faith tourist arrivals, six will be visiting Prophet T.B Joshua, three will be visiting Bishop David Oyedepo and one will be visiting at least one other pastor. Some of them have guest houses but they are not adequate for the sustained influx of religious tourists so this ripples to hotels and other sectors such as transport."
Cde Ndhlovu said her ministry is promoting what she called MICE tourism, that is, a concept of tourism based on meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions. She said MICE has the potential to increase the capacity of Zimbabwe's tourism industry, with the benefits rippling into other industries.
Over the past few years, she added, they have seen the industry benefiting significantly from religious conventions held by Christian denominations such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventist Church and the Apostolic Faith Mission.
"Mega-churches such as Prophetic Healing and Deliverance Ministry and United Family International Church have been successfully hosting conventions which attract people from other countries.
"Media reports placed delegates at the last PHD's Night of Turnaround at more than half a million people. UFIC's Judgement Night and Zaoga FIF's Deeper Life Conference also consistently draw in huge figures.
"In 2014, Parliament had to adjourn during the Jehovah's Witnesses conference because hotels in Harare were fully booked and MPs from outside could not find accommodation," she said.
She also explained how such conventions go so far as creating employment for locals and encouraging small and medium enterprises that get to provide services during such times.
She urged religious organisations to register and licence their shrines and holy places so that the ministry can market them as tourist attractions
Religious tourism is not just about historical sites and conferences. In other countries, it is becoming a function of Christian research and scholarship.
In the Christian realm, treasure troves of religious tourism include churches, cathedrals, shrines, museums and other pilgrimage destinations.
Zimbabwe also boasts an indigenous aspect of religious tourism, with better known treasures such as Great Zimbabwe housing artefacts of the Shona traditional religion. Scholars and other pilgrims visit these sites not only for the recreational but also their anthropological value.
The peculiar cultures of the Tonga and Varemba (black Jews of Zimbabwe) are also rich sites of exploration, with important discoveries such as the Ngoma Lungundu. Every strand from Zimbabwe's faith landscape can contribute meaningfully to religious tourism.
Zimbabwe enjoys a long-running legacy of the friendly and peaceful co-existence of religions and has managed to subversive and intolerant forms such as those fermenting in other regions.
Where religious fundamentalism has instigated iconoclasm, with insurgents vandalising monuments, Zimbabwe exudes tolerance. This will aid the upsurge of religious tourism here, whereas it is in jeopardy elsewhere.
With the rest of Africa, Zimbabwe has been primed for sustained growth in religious affiliation, contrary to the decline of faith in the West. If harnessed, this can maximise the return on faith in Zimbabwe.