The study, published in the Journal of Marketing Management, analysed reviews posted on Trip Advisor by travellers to Mecca, Christianity's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Hinduism's Ganga Aarti, Buddhism's Maya Devi Temple, and Judaism's Western Wall.
Associate Professor Tom van Laer, who co-authored the study, says that while pilgrims once travelled to the holy sites on foot, by camel or on horseback, most today fly on jet aircraft and often make their travel arrangements after reading reviews posted on Internet websites.
"Accommodation, clothing suppliers, restaurants, transportation - many posts appraise these basic travel necessities," says Dr van Laer. "However, our research has found that the star ratings posted online are much higher than can be reasonably expected."
He also says that online reviews themselves can be distorted by the spiritual nature of the journey.
It seems that these reviews and star ratings reflect more the contributor's spiritual experience than the physical aspect of the pilgrimage.
"It seems that people are also increasingly comfortable blending the spiritual and physical aspects of their lives," he continued. "Review-writing pilgrims have no problem combining the spiritual and physical aspects of their pilgrimage in their reviews."
Dr van Laer’s research paper quotes an illustrative review of the Hajj experience:
"A marvellous and spiritual experience and the sight of the Kaabah is truly special. Be patient with the crowds and remember Allah at all times. Be careful with your shoes/slippers as it might disappear. Bring them with you using the plastic bags available. If you lose them during the hot day, be careful of the hot floor surface which are not marble. If you are lucky you might find someone selling slippers."
"In our view, potential pilgrims shouldn't trust the star ratings of reviews if they want to know about the physical aspect of a pilgrimage. The ratings only reflect the spiritual aspects," he concluded.
"They should also be careful when reading review texts: think critically, learn how to reconcile differing sets of opinions or perspectives, and try to understand the roles that both the spiritual and the material aspects of the pilgrimage played for the reviewers to write in the way they did."
An estimated two and a half million followers of Islam from across the world are expected to join the annual pilgrimage to Mecca's Grand Mosque in early August.
Declaration: this research received no financial or other support from sources outside of the University of Sydney Business School or the University of Michigan Business School.