Wing and a prayer
Published 30/01/2010 | 05:00
It's shaping up to be a bumper year for religious tourism. Sales of sun holidays and city breaks are as sluggish as you'd expect during a recession, but if you sell pilgrimages for a living, the chances are business is booming.
Lourdes, Rome, The Holy Land, not to mention Knock, are all expecting a surge in visitors in 2010.
In four months' time, more than half a million people will descend on the tiny Bavarian village of Oberammergau for its legendary passion play, held only once every 10 years. Since 1634, when locals pledged to stage it if they were spared the plague, it has been put on every decade, with half of the town's 5,000 residents taking part in an extravagant production.
It lasts a marathon five hours and is performed entirely in German, but tickets are nearly sold out and all-in packages are disappearing fast.
One of the world's most popular sites of Christian pilgrimage, Spain's Santiago de Compostela is bracing itself for more than 10 million tourists this summer because the feast of St James, July 25, falls on a Sunday.
The last time this happened was in 2004, when six million pilgrims descended on the city's remarkable cathedral where the saint is believed to be buried. Spain has declared 2010 a Holy Year in preparation for the feast.
In Italy, a rare exposition of the Turin Shroud has been drawing feverish attention too.
A massive three million tourists are estimated to pour into the city to see the controversial cloth, which many Catholics believe to be the burial robe of Jesus despite growing evidence to the contrary. For the first time since it was restored in 2002, it will be put on public display in the city's cathedral. More than 600,000 have already made reservations to see it and a visit by Pope Benedict XVI in May is expected to attract even more attention to the event.
This hectic year for pilgrimages confirms the findings of a recent report by the World Tourism Organisation, which claimed that religious tourism has been able to withstand the pressures of the global recession because it is seen not as a luxury but a form of travel with a purpose.
It's not only Christian pilgrimages that are making a comeback this decade. The biggest religious gathering on the planet, Kumbh Mela, has just got under way at the foot of the Himalayas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand.
For three months, millions of devout Hindus will wade into the waters of the Ganges in the belief that the river will wash away their sins and purify their souls.
They dismiss concerns about worsening pollution in the 2,500km river, which has become a toxic stew of raw sewage, rubbish and industrial waste.
For worshippers such as Ram Sharma, a regular pilgrim to the river, it is the stuff miracles are made of.
"For us it is holy water," he said during a recent swim, before cupping his hands in the water and taking a slurp.