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Religious pilgrimages spur multibillion dollar industry

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Tourists arrive Sept. 19 at Saint Peter's Square before Pope Benedict XVI's weekly general audience.

International religious pilgrimage: the business of devotion and divinity, miracles and mysticism for millions of worshippers. A time of life-affirming contemplation for the faithful … and the lifeblood of the communities surrounding popular shrines.

Global “pilgrimage tourism” encompasses a multitude of businesses from tour operators and shrine administrators, to road-side souvenir stalls and pilgrims’ hostels.

Religious travel generates at least $8 billion a year for shrine-centered economies and provides employment for thousands, according to academics — and being able to measure the celestial and spiritual elements of pilgrimage in monetary terms is far from a modern phenomenon; it’s as ancient as the act of spiritual travel itself.

“Pilgrimage has always been commercial, as has religion,” Manchester University professor Ian Reader told CNBC. “The roots of tourism are in pilgrimage, as the first package tours in Europe were organized by Venetian merchants controlling the Mediterranean. They ran tours to the Christian Holy Land in medieval times.”

Reader is an expert on the economics of pilgrimage. His book, “Pilgrimage in the Marketplace,” will be published in 2013.

"The contributions of pilgrims to local economies cannot be underestimated,” he stressed. “I have seen estimates that in the early 2000s, pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy [the mystic saint Padre Pio's pilgrimage site] brought the town some 35 million pounds ($56.8 million) in revenue — and it sustains the local economy.”

Indeed, destinations such as Lourdes or San Giovanni that have built their identity around their shrines, call it religious branding. Entire towns are dedicated to the business of saints. Souvenir stalls, restaurants, hostels and tour operators owe their existence to the 100 million pilgrimages that take place every year.

As with much in the spiritual world, measuring the financial impact of pilgrimage is more art than science. Tourist revenues are subject to seasonal variations, and often the businesses surrounding shrines are reluctant to be seen as mercenaries.

However, tourism scholar S. Vijayanand, author of “Socio Economic Impacts in Pilgrimage Tourism,” published in the "International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research" in January 2012, estimates that pilgrimage tourism is worth up to $8 billion a year globally.

It’s not just spending by tourists generating economic activity. Host countries also benefit from tourist-related infrastructure projects. Saudi Arabia has just approved a development plan costing $16.5 billion to improve transport facilities (including a new rail line dubbed "Mecca Metro") for the annual 2.5 million pilgrims that visit Mecca on Hajj, the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage duty for all able-bodies Muslims.

In fact, tourist revenues provide much of the cash flow for the Roman Catholic Church.

The Holy See — the church as an economic entity — recorded a budget shortfall of $19 million in 2011. But the Vatican City State — the guardian of the Church’s structures and Museums, including the Sistine Chapel — enjoyed a budget surplus of nearly $22 million, thanks to the fervor of tourists.

The Vatican might be the heartland of Catholicism’s papal leadership, but devotees in search of spiritual succor may opt for Lourdes, the site of a Marian apparition that now boasts one of the biggest shrines in the world.

“The entire economy of towns such as Lourdes is, in effect, based on pilgrimage,” Reader tells CNBC.

Indeed, in 2010 Lourdes’ administrators recorded employment of 30 full-time chaplains, 292 full-time lay employees and a further 120 seasonal employees, accounting for nearly four percent of the area’s total population.

They’re assisted by more than 100,000 volunteers who look after the needs of visitors, many of whom journey to Lourdes in search of miracle recoveries from crippling ailments and disabilities.

Whatever solace pilgrims draw from their sojourn, they return in the way of hard currency. Some 90 percent of Lourdes' 18 million euro budget is derived from visitor donations.

Some commentators on Catholicism, such as New York Times journalist Jason Horowitz, have bemoaned the commercialism of popular shrines and souvenir stalls, describing the rows of plastic saints or cigarette lighters emblazoned with a benevolent and beatific face as belonging to a “souvenir circus.”

But Reader of Manchester University disagrees. “Souvenirs are an intrinsic part of the pilgrimage market — without them there would be fewer pilgrims, and pilgrim places would be less lively. My studies show a livelier place attracts more pilgrims.”

Related: Wacky souvenirs probably best left unbought

The United Nation's World Travel Organization reckoned in 2007 that religious tourism, albeit a loose category, was the “fastest growing part of the travel business.”

Indeed in 2007, the Vatican’s pilgrimage office, the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, was so keen to encourage the laity to visit shrines that it struck a five-year contract with Italian cargo airline Mistral Air and started pilgrimage charter flights around the globe under the slogan, “I’m searching for your face, Lord.”

Branding and advertising may be a very modern way of reaching today’s pilgrims but the faithful have taken to the road seeking salvation since the Crusades, said Reader.

Fast-forward a millennium, however, and the competition for pilgrims is heating up with hundreds of pilgrimage tours operating online vying to entice millions of would-be pilgrims to undertake a religious journey.

Priests or other religious scholars often oversee the tours, adding a sense of depth and veracity to the journey. However, one priest told the National Catholic Reporter that the religious experience might be diluted by modernity and indeed, the travel.

Modern pilgrims are keener on capturing the moment on their smartphones than quietly savoring the spiritual experience, said Friar Caesar Atuire lamenting the“kind of absenteeism that's becoming very pronounced even in our pilgrimages.”

Atheists welcome
Which points to a whole new target group for tourist operators marketing shrine-related packages. If devotees are perhaps becoming less devout, as it were, perhaps their more secular brethren could come to see the cultural attraction of many religious sites.

The European Commission (EC) has recently issued a report that seeks to promote pilgrimage routes as “Cultural Routes”: journeys for everyone, adherent or atheist.

Penelope Denu, administrator of the EC’s “Cultural Routes,” told CNBC that these pilgrimage routes are not only the preserve of the ardent devotee. “More and more people are now doing these routes that have no religious connection,” she said.

Secular and cultural use of pilgrimage routes such as of the Camino de Compostela in Spain means that hundreds of thousands of visitors no longer carry the symbols of a religious pilgrim, such as a “pilgrim’s passport” or oyster shell (a symbol synonymous with Santiago-St. James-of Compostela, to whom the route is dedicated) along the journey.

Business is booming for hostel and business that line the 780-kilometer (485 mile) route — an economic success that hasn't gone unnoticed by Eurovia, an association for the establishment of European pilgrimage routes, or the Italian State, which has funded a relaunch for an Italian pilgrimage route with a 10 million euro ($12.9 million) grant.

The association is attempting to promote the lesser-traveled Via Francigena, an ancient 2000-kilometer pilgrimage route from Britain to Rome that it believes could rival Spain’s Camino.

Georg Kerschbaum, president of Eurovia, told CNBC that the route is becoming more and more popular, spurring the development of infrastructure, such as sleeping accommodation, along the route.

“The Via Francigena would definitely benefit the local economy — you will get people passing through villages that would never usually be visited,” he said. “Little shops can then survive as pilgrims use the route. It’s amazing for the economy.”

Kershbaum adds that even though the Via Francigena is still not so well known, even if only 500 people a year walked it, “that would be 500 more tourists than there were before.”

Professor Reader notes that “commerce has been intrinsic in pilgrimage from the outset.”

Indeed, from the relics of religion traded for over 2000 years to the modern souvenir stalls of Lourdes or the shrine of “Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico,” the booming business of pilgrimage looks set to stay.

“One should not think that there is a distinct separation of ‘religion/pilgrimage’ and ‘money' .... Religion and pilgrimage and money go hand in hand.”

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