"Only by close cooperation, including mutual assistance among sectors and nations, can we develop spiritual tourism," Vietnam's Vice President, Nguyen Thi Doan, said on November 21.

Addressing the first-ever international spiritual tourism conference in northern Ninh Binh province, the Vice President continued: "Beliefs and culture are considered the key component of spiritual tourism products, and the tie connecting the Vietnamese people with international friends."

She spoke before 300 national and international participants at the International Conference on Spiritual Tourism for Sustainable Development.

Doan said the conference was significant since religious diversification and differences are increasingly respected throughout the world, and sustainable development orientations forms a vital part of global agendas.

"Responsible and sustainable use of natural and cultural values in the development of spiritual tourism will generate employment opportunities and income, reduce poverty, and promote cultural exchanges, friendship and understanding among nations," she added.

Co-organised by the Vietnam Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the event explores ways in which living cultures, traditions and beliefs can be integrated into tourism, while respecting the four pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, social and cultural.

Thus, during the two-day conference at Bai Dinh pagoda, participants focused their discussions on the understanding and safeguarding of spiritual, religious and cultural values and assets in the context of tourism; development, management, promotion, and interpretation of spiritual tourism products; and socio-economic inclusion and empowerment of local communities, in particular of vulnerable groups.

Spiritual tourism is actually a type of cultural tourism, in which spiritual culture is a basic factor needed to meet people's spiritual demands. This brings sacred emotions and spiritual experiences to people who are traveling.

Opening the conference, deputy minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Ho Anh Tuan said: "In this world, we are different in terms of skin colours and religions, but the trusts that we rely on are similar in regards to compassion, tolerance and humanity."

"It's the element of borderless-ness and the common nature of these trusts, together with spiritual beliefs, that bring about sympathy, the sense of sharing and the needs for mutual understanding," Tuan said. "These are not only needs, but also opportunities and a golden land for the development of tourism, particularly spiritual tourism."

Sharing this concept, UNWTO Executive Director Zoltan Somogyi stated that spiritual tourism held great opportunities for Vietnam. "More international tourists will be good for the economy and local communities. Also, it helps a lot in developing the mentality of people," Somogyi said.

"With numerous holy places that are well-known in the region, Vietnam avails itself of excellent opportunities for attracting more tourists to the country and to this specific region [Ninh Binh]."

The UNWTO high-ranking official praised spiritual tourism, saying it is a good idea to open a new focus for tourism to be developed, so it was important to find places well-known for domestic and international tourists, and develop new spiritual tourism products.

"Ninh Binh has a wonderful landscape, pagoda, and churches, excellent for tourism to become a very important stakeholder in Vietnam and in the region.

"Bai Dinh pagoda and Phat Diem's stone church are very good examples of how well-invested and well-developed the area is in terms of spiritual tourism," said Somogyi after visiting tourism sites in Ninh Binh.

"It makes good tourism, not only for spiritual beliefs, but also for the security of people coming here and enjoying the facilities."

However, he stressed that it was important to have good planning to use physical and tourism resources, other than for improving people's incomes, and to find a good balance between the number of visitors and protecting the environment to ensure sustainable development of tourism.

At the conference, Dr. Daniel Olsen from Canada's Brandon University said: "Sustainable tourism development is a very complex process that requires a lot of management, networking, money, and willpower to be successful."

Nevertheless, spiritual tourism could also cause problems, he stressed. "Spiritual sites and experiences can potentially be misrepresented and cultures objectified and exhibited, unless all relevant stakeholders are included in the decision-making processes regarding how spiritual sites and symbols will be used to promote a destination."

In Vietnam's history, the spiritual culture appeared very early, characterised by numerous and diverse expressions. The most popular expression is to worship ancestors, grandparents, parents and relatives. In communities, local people worship the gods of the communities, national heroes, and great masters who bring honour to the country. Because of the influence of religions, the Vietnamese people build pagodas, temples, cathedrals, churches and practice praying rituals.

Ninh Binh province has many unique and beautiful natural sites, such as Trang An and Tam Coc-Bich Dong tourism complexes, Cuc Phuong National Forest, Van Long Wet Land Conservation Area, and numerous cultural-historical heritages and distinctive religious architectural monuments, including Hoa Lu ancient capital, Bai Dinh pagoda, and Phat Diem stone church. It also possesses 1,500 historical-cultural heritage, religious and other architectural monuments.

After visiting tourism sites in Ninh Binh during his study tour to Vietnam last year, UNWTO General Secretary Taleb Rifai said he formed a positive impression and began plans to hold the first international event on spiritual tourism.

The Ninh Binh Declaration on Spiritual Tourism for Sustainable Development is expected to be approved at the close of the conference on November 22.-VNA