An Exploration of the Relationship between Contemporary Spirituality, the Physically Active Rural Tourist and the Geography of Place: a case study of the Lake District

Jepson, Deborah (2013) An Exploration of the Relationship between Contemporary Spirituality, the Physically Active Rural Tourist and the Geography of Place: a case study of the Lake District. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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It is well documented that the search for spirituality or spiritual transcendence is a defining characteristic of contemporary society. Paralleling this theme, it has also been argued that tourism, as a pervasive social activity, may be considered a modern sacred experience, a search for spiritual transcendence. However, few attempts have been made to explore empirically this alleged relationship between tourism and spirituality, particularly in the context of space-specific tourist activities, such as rural tourism. Once the domain of philosophers, academic knowledge of place, sense of place and place attachment has largely become the territory of human geographers who have contributed to defining these concepts and who, moreover, are responsible for classifying the complex interactions of humans with space and place. Present research undertaken has been directed at wilderness and outdoor environments and the concept of spirituality has, largely, been indirectly studied or purely arises as an outcome of the research. To date, limited academic attention has been paid to enhancing understanding of the role that ‘place’, specifically rural place, as a social construct, has in influencing physically active tourists’ emotive outcomes and in particular, spiritual expressions.

The purpose of this study, therefore, is to explore critically the concept of place with reference to the countryside, seeking in particular to identify the impact of constructed place on the emotive/spiritual experience of tourists engaging in physical pursuits in rural areas. More specifically, the location of the study focus is the Lake District National Park, a unique and popular rural landscape that embodies the socially constructed image of a rural idyll. Rural tourism, a prevalent contemporary activity offering a sharp contrast to the urban experience, is largely under-researched in respect to the potential spirituality of such experiences. This study facilitates the building of a contextual framework reflecting the dynamic tripartite relationship of place meaning, setting and physical activity and how these three concepts link to spiritual experience. It addresses a gap in academic literature by exploring rural tourism and the potential spiritual dimension of this activity drawing attention to the role that sense of place and physical activity plays in spiritual experiences. Academic research has, largely, focussed on tourists’ overall experiences of place and activity, only noting spirituality as a response to certain environments and activities. In addressing this gap, this research seeks to clarify understanding of contemporary spirituality and identify clearly the spiritual dimension of the active rural tourist, pinpointing the external and internal elements influencing these experiences.

The research in this thesis incorporates phenomenological processes. These are employed initially in focus groups to develop emergent themes and, in the second stage, by way of a conversational interview format to encourage the flow of subjective commentary, thereby eliciting rich, thick data necessary for understanding the complexities of spiritual occurrence in a specific 'place’. The findings show that the rural tourist does not consciously search for spirituality but there is a spiritual dimension to rural visitors’ experiences of the countryside. Place plays an important part in these experiences but sense of place, although frequently intensifying spiritual experiences, is not shown to be the embodiment of spiritual experience. Spirituality, as a dimension of rural tourism, develops from a tri-partite relationship incorporating aspects of physical location, physical activity and place meaning.

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