It is one of life's ultimate ironies. A book about one woman's spiritual quest to find herself has spawned a multimillion-pound film franchise and sparked a fresh stampede for the hippie trail she followed on her path to enlightenment.
Travel agents have rushed to cash in on the publishing sensation that is Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love – which has sold more than seven million copies since it came out four years ago – with special packages designed for the book's acolytes. A new film, starring none other than the hippie-haired Julia Roberts, will only boost a phenomenon that has seen foreign visitors to Bali, the Indonesian island that featured in the travel memoir, soar to a record 2.2 million last year.
In the book, Gilbert embarks on a journey of self-discovery after a messy divorce. Her alliterative route, which took in Italy, India and Indonesia, has rekindled interest in the mystical hippie trail, as popularised by the likes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the 1960s. The one difference is that this time round, rather than hitchhike their way across the vast expanses of the Asian subcontinent, or slum it in 50p-a-night hostels, travellers are hopping on planes and flexing their credit cards to check in to six-star former palaces that have been repackaged as retreats for the materially devout.
Trailfinders, the holiday company that ran the first overland tour from Earls Court Road in London to Kathmandu in 1970s, said many of its original customers were retracing their old steps – but this time in comfort. "We're now catering for the 'old' travellers and their children, and they're choosing to 'find themselves' at our £500-a-night hotels. We've found that our clients from the 1970s have become really wealthy. Now they're more likely to stay in five- or six-star retreats to really get away from it all," said Nikki Davies, the company's marketing manager.
As well as films such as Eat Pray Love, which was the second most popular movie behind Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables on its opening weekend in the US, Ms Davies also credited the recession for reviving demand for hippie-themed holidays. "We had more people than ever before coming to us wanting to go away for a long time to think and recover," she said.
STA Travel, which specialises in holidays to Asia, reported a similar trend. Sales for its 20-day Roam India package, which invites travellers to "come face-to-face with spirituality far removed from the shallow complexity of the Western world" for a cool £749, have soared by 50 per cent in the past year. Ian Swain, STA's product director, said: "We've seen a rise in demand for meaningful, spiritual or wholesome holidays. Films shot in various locations inspire uplift in sales to the featured destination. Bali and India are both growth destinations, and no doubt the spectacular footage in Eat Pray Love will continue to spark demand for flights to and tours in both places."
The tour operator has seen sales of trips to India increase by nearly one-fifth in the past 12 months, and has sold 30 per cent more flights to Bali than this time last year. And that is before the film opens in the UK next month.
It isn't just Western firms that are in the money on the back of the new spiritual gold rush. The Balinese medicine man who featured in Gilbert's book, Ketut Liyer, is a hot ticket for foreign travellers. For the hordes of women who make the trek to his hut, the canny healer has quadrupled his prices to £16 for a palm reading and £287 for one of his so-called magic paintings. Four Seasons even offers an Eat Pray Love package in Bali, complete with a personal consultation with Mr Liyer.
Perhaps inevitably, the material consequences of Eat Pray Love's massive popularity have triggered a backlash. One self-confessed "Indiaphile", the Canadian-based writer Mariellen Ward, said: "The book and movie have none of the hallmarks of a true spiritual quest. I heard the cash register ch-chinging as I read it. Gilbert travelled to Italy, India and Bali on a large book advance – which means essentially that she was doing research – and she doesn't change, she doesn't transform, she just falls in love again."
Critics also worry that a surge in tourists will end up destroying the very places they visit. Not to mention that during a 15-day lightning tour of Rajasthan or Bali they will miss the point of Gilbert's adventure, which was to devote plenty of time to her journey. Then again, with a fat advance from her publisher, she could afford to linger.