A Fading Aura For Arizona's Spiritual Tourism

NPR/February 16, 2011

Spiritual tourism, an economic staple of northern Arizona, continues to suffer in the wake of a fatal incident at a Sedona-area sweat lodge. In 2009, three participants in a "Spiritual Warrior" retreat died from heatstroke and organ failure; others were hospitalized.

As jury selection gets under way Wednesday in the manslaughter trial for the retreat's host - self-help guru James Arthur Ray - members of the area's spiritual tourism industry have been left asking: How much of their economic woe stems from the tragedy, and how much from an already tough economy?

In addition to the criminal case against Ray, people who were in the sweat lodge and victims' families have brought 10 lawsuits against the facility he rented, Angel Valley Retreat Center. Amid all this, business was down 50 percent last year, after five years of steady growth.

"I think most of it all has to do with people being unsure what exactly happened," says Amayra Hamilton, who runs Angel Valley with her husband. "So there's uncertainty."

Angel Valley lies south of Sedona, which is a mecca for spiritual travelers. For decades they've flocked to what locals refer to as Sedona's vortices. These are swirling centers of energy that some believe flow out of the region's stunning red rock formations. To serve visitors' spiritual needs, cottage industries have popped up, such as healers, counselors, teachers, tours, psychic readers and energetic healers.

But business has dropped for many of them, including bookstore owner Luci Guadreau. A retired teacher, Guadreau has had to dip into savings to keep Golden Word, her store of spiritual and metaphysical books, afloat.

"I literally see people walking around with their cell phones, adding up prices, and deciding which of the things they're going to buy," Guadreau said. "When we first got here I did not see [that] at all."

But Guadreau attributes her struggles to the recession, not to fallout from the sweat lodge incident. Jennifer Wesselhoff, CEO of the Sedona Chamber of Commerce, says a lot of her members have seen revenues decline by 20 percent or more. But she agrees it's hard to know whether the recession has caused it.

Other possible culprits for Arizona's economic woes are the state's controversial immigration law and the recent shooting in Tucson.

But some spiritual entrepreneurs say what they offer is recession-proof. Mark Pinkham, who leads vortex tours in Sedona, says his business has never been better.

"Maybe in a recession it's even more important to feel that connection to the spirit, to a higher power when things are difficult in your life," he says.

Kevin Wright, who has written several books on religious and spiritual travel, says spiritual tourists don't make travel decisions based on money. As a result, he says, "The leisure traveler market is down quite a bit, whereas the religious/spiritual market, it may be down a little bit, or it's holding steady."

Back at Angel Valley Retreat Center, Hamilton says she's starting to get more interest and bookings.

"We get questions like, 'Are you open?' Yes we are!" she says.

But she's worried that the James Ray trial may bring negative energy to a place where spiritual seekers come to escape it.

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