Twenty-five hundred years ago, the founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, said,"The longest journey begins with a single step." At the dawn of the millennium,people across the spectrum of world religions will take their first stepwith a spiritual goal in mind as many plan religious travel.

Spiritual travel - journeying for the purpose of spiritualtransformation - is at an all time high. In a good year, the CatholicChurch welcomes 3 million tourists to Vatican City, but this yearthey expect as many as 29 million. Israel, home to religious sitessacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, has dubbed itself "The LandWhere Time Began" for the millennial year, and has spent $600 millionto attract tourists of all religious backgrounds. Mecca, SaudiArabia has reported slightly increasing numbers of pilgrims to Islam'sholiest city over the last several years, and now expects some 2 millionfrom 100 nations in the coming year.

Not every religious group plans to mark the millennium with some kind oftravel. Indeed, most of the world's major faiths do not consider 2000 a religiously important year because their calendar is not based on the Christian calendar. For Jews, 2000 is really the year 5760. Hindus marktime from about 1000 B.C.E., while the many branches of Buddhism havedifferent ways of counting the years, usually from the birth of theBuddha in the 6th or 5th century B.C.E. Muslims count the years from 622C.E., making 2000 the year 1421. And most Christians recognize thatChrist was not actually born in the year 0, but more likely in 4 or 6B.C.E, making 2000 the anniversary of his fourth or sixth birthday.

"It comes down to purpose," said Phil Cosineau, author of The Art ofPilgrimage: A Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred."If you leave on a journey in 2000 simply because the miles rolled overlike the odometer in your car, then it is going to be just one moretrendy thing to do. But if in your own cosmology you can turn thatnumber into a personal statement, then you can make that journey morespiritual."

For Catholics, 2000 is an important year not only because it marksapproximately two millennia of Christianity, but also because the churchhas declared it a Jubilee Year, an event it celebrates about every 25years. In a Jubilee Year, Catholics who undertake pilgrimages todesignated holy sites and perform certain acts there (such as taking Communionor reciting the rosary) receive "plenary indulgences," a specialremission of sins.

Pope John Paul II will inaugurate the Jubilee Year on Christmas Eve 1999with the opening of the Porta Sancta, a door in St. Peter's Basilicathat has remained closed since 1983, the last Jubilee Year. Thecelebration will run through Easter 2001, and is expected to peak inMarch 2000 when the Pope travels to Jerusalem.

As expected, the number of Catholics traveling for the Jubilee hasincreased, with some Catholic tour companies reporting two or more timesthe business they have in other years. At Regina Tours, a Cleveland,Ohio, Catholic tour company, demand for Jubilee Year travel has climbedso high company president James Adair said he has leased an aircraft,the Jubilee One, which will make weekly chartered flights to Romebeginning December 17 through the year 2000.

"There is a certain euphoria," Adair said. "We truly believe that whenwe commit a sin, certain punishment is due. In a Jubilee Year, some ofthat punishment can be relieved by visiting designated basilicas anddoing certain prescribed acts, like receiving Holy Communion,going to confession, and praying for the Holy Father."

But not all Catholics are heading for Rome. Father Thomas Hand andSister Marguerite Buchanan, a Catholic priest and nun, will take 20people on an "eco-pilgrimage" from San Francisco, California to New Zealandnext March. The duo did not schedule the trip with any millennial plansin mind, other than "what might arise out of the consciousness of thepeople," Hand said.

"In other words, people will be kind of thinking a little differently,taking a bigger view of things and really having the feeling of startingout anew, all of which is special to next year," he said. "It is morethe general atmosphere of the times than any particular connection withthe year itself."

In Buddhism, pilgrimage is important for the good karma it can bring tothe visitor. Yet Nick Ribush, director of the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archivein Boston, Massachusetts, said he knows of no special blessings that will bebestowed upon pilgrims who visit stupas, Buddhist pilgrimage shrines, inthe coming year.

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama said recently that January 1, 2000, is justanother day," he said. "If people don't free their minds of anger anddisappointment"--two major roadblocks to enlightenment--"then it isnothing. It is more important to change our minds than to change thedate."

Protestant Christian groups will be travelling in 2000, too, thoughIsrael has lots of competition as a destination. Mediterranean sites related to St. Paul are experiencing a boomlet, as the new millennium puts Christians in mind of the early days of the church, andMarian shrines are increasingly popular among women of all Christianfaiths. Also of interest to Christian groups is Oberammergau, Bavaria,where the "Passion Play" of Christ's life and death is scheduled for thesummer. The play is staged only once every ten years, and has been afixture of Christian literature since 1630. One Christian tourexecutive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Israel may nottop some travelers' lists because of concern about a possibly volatileatmosphere there created by the influx of so many religious groups.