The growth in interest in pilgrimages

The Holy Land is the prime destination for Christian pilgrimage
The Holy Land is the prime destination for Christian pilgrimage

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation now puts the annual number of tourists making a journey to destination sites holy to their religion at 330 million — that is nearly one-third of all “leisure” travel worldwide. Big business for airlines, for those providing accommodation, and for travel companies.

The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) has just published a Special Report in its magazine. Take that massive number: 100 million are in India — visiting shrines, bathing in the Ganges. Muslims are expected to make a Hajj to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. The annual figure is over 3 million — of whom around 25,000 travel from Britain.

For Christians, at least 20 million visit Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Mexico City: however, as the population of Greater Mexico City is over 21 million, we can take it that most have not too far to travel.

In Europe, says ABTA, over 5 million visit the Vatican, 4 million go to Fatima in Portugal (on a hillside north of Lisbon) and the same number to Lourdes in France. Such visits are, for many, travel companies report, part of a general holiday break — Fatima has good beaches and hotels nearby.

Pope Francis has named 2016 a holy year, and one ABTA member catering for the Christian travel market expects the number wishing to take a pilgrimage to Rome to triple this year. “We always have a priest-leader and include a papal audience in St Peter’s Square…” Its director also expects to take 10,000 to Lourdes, and the same number to Walsingham, where the general estimate of such annual visitors is 100,000.

Such general figures have of course something of estimates about them: of interest is that one respected source also quotes 2,500 for St Albans.

For Christians, Israel, the land of the Bible, is the ultimate in a pilgrimage. The ABTA Special Report names six members who cater for the Christian travel market. They quote one, the managing director of ITS Pilgrimages, Adrian Cohen (ITS stands for Israel Travel Service, operating two divisions, one for individual travel to Israel, the other specialising in Christian pilgrimage travel.)

Cohen says: “I get particular satisfaction from taking clergy who’ve never been to the Holy Land before… it completely changes their perception.” Their tours are tailored to the requirements of the group — even to shorter trips, run from Monday to Saturday, to enable clergy to get back home to lead their Sunday services.

Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee, and “countless” other biblical sites can be included. Guides will ensure that each denomination within a group has a place to worship.

With the security situation in the Middle East, bookings are sensitive to change. But, says Cohen, “The desire for pilgrimage is inbred”.