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 step with a spiritual goal in mind as many plan religious travel.

Spiritual travel - journeying for the purpose of spiritual transformation - is at an all time high. In a good year, the Catholic Church welcomes 3 million tourists to Vatican City, but this year they expect as many as 29 million. Israel, home to religious sites sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, has dubbed itself "The Land Where Time Began" for the millennial year, and has spent $600 million to attract tourists of all religious backgrounds. Mecca, Saudi Arabia has reported slightly increasing numbers of pilgrims to Islam's holiest city over the last several years, and now expects some 2 million from 100 nations in the coming year.

Not every religious group plans to mark the millennium with some kind of travel. 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 mark time from about 1000 B.C.E., while the many branches of Buddhism have different ways of counting the years, usually from the birth of the Buddha in the 6th or 5th century B.C.E. Muslims count the years from 622 C.E., making 2000 the year 1421. And most Christians recognize that Christ was not actually born in the year 0, but more likely in 4 or 6 B.C.E, making 2000 the anniversary of his fourth or sixth birthday.

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

For Catholics, 2000 is an important year not only because it marks approximately two millennia of Christianity, but also because the church has declared it a Jubilee Year, an event it celebrates about every 25 years. In a Jubilee Year, Catholics who undertake pilgrimages to designated holy sites and perform certain acts there (such as taking Communion or reciting the rosary) receive "plenary indulgences," a special remission of sins.

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

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

"There is a certain euphoria," Adair said. "We truly believe that when we commit a sin, certain punishment is due. In a Jubilee Year, some of that punishment can be relieved by visiting designated basilicas and doing 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 and Sister Marguerite Buchanan, a Catholic priest and nun, will take 20 people on an "eco-pilgrimage" from San Francisco, California to New Zealand next March. The duo did not schedule the trip with any millennial plans in mind, other than "what might arise out of the consciousness of the people," 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 starting out anew, all of which is special to next year," he said. "It is more the general atmosphere of the times than any particular connection with the year itself."

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

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama said recently that January 1, 2000, is just another day," he said. "If people don't free their minds of anger and disappointment"--two major roadblocks to enlightenment--"then it is nothing. It is more important to change our minds than to change the date."

Protestant Christian groups will be travelling in 2000, too, though Israel 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, and Marian shrines are increasingly popular among women of all Christian faiths. Also of interest to Christian groups is Oberammergau, Bavaria, where the "Passion Play" of Christ's life and death is scheduled for the summer. The play is staged only once every ten years, and has been a fixture of Christian literature since 1630. One Christian tour executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Israel may not top some travelers' lists because of concern about a possibly volatile atmosphere there created by the influx of so many religious groups.

"Many of our tour leaders, though excited about the millennium, are worried about the crowds and want to put Israel off for another year," the executive said. "A few have also expressed concern about the Y2K problem."

One Islamic group will also forgo the coming year for 2001, when it plans to ferry 2,001 American Muslims to Mecca for the hajj, the pilgrimage every adult Muslim is required to perform at least once. Imam Warith Deen Muhammed, leader of a Chicago-based national ministry that claims about 200 masjids, or mosques, and 750,000 individual followers, said he chose the year 2001 because of its religious significance to Christians. He described Christians as the brothers of Muslims because of their mutual belief in Abraham, Moses, and Christ as prophets of God, who Muslims call Allah, and said making the hajj in 2001 would bring his followers closer to other "people of the Book."

"This will be a really hot season for devotion and connection with God," Imam Mohammed said. "We are seeing it already. We recognize that and we just can't help but feel a high spiritual connection with Christians and Jews. I can't help but feel the heavenly saints are all together with us in the celebration."

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