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21 Oct, 2009

In Asia, France Promotes Spiritual Tourism to Lourdes

France is known more for its wine, fashion and shopping but one of its key destinations is slowly gaining popularity in Asia for a somewhat unlikely niche-market — spiritual and religious tourism.

Located 812 kilometres south of Paris, the city of Lourdes is being frequented by Christian pilgrims largely from the Philippines but also increasingly from Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The city is known for the 18 apparitions of the Virgin Mary experienced in 1858 by Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl suffering from cholera and tuberculosis who, after the apparitions and cleansing with the Massabielle spring water, went on to become a nun and live until 1879.

In 1875, according to the city’s historical records, the Assumptionist fathers began organising annual rail pilgrimages for the sick and disabled to the Massabielle Grotto, first from within France and later from all over Europe. Small hospices and accommodation centres emerged to meet demand.

In 2008, the 150th anniversary of the apparitions, the city received an estimated nine million visitors of whom 1.46 million were pilgrims in organised pilgrimages (+50 % over 2007) and 131,278 young people in organised pilgrimages (+54 %). Another 67,670 were sick or disabled people.

Mr Franck DelaHaye, Promotion Director of Lourdes Tourism office, was in Bangkok last week along with a delegation of 10 French exhibitors, on a roadshow through Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Jakarta. He says he is making up to three trips a year to Asia to develop the nascent market.

Angeline Tang, the Singapore-based Regional Marketing Manager for Atout France, the French national tourism organisation, says a number of tour operators are beginning to specialise in pilgrimage tourism in Southeast Asia.

About 41% of the organised pilgrims to Lourdes are from France itself, followed by Italy and Spain. In 2008, a mere 17,158 organised pilgrims came from South Asia (mainly India), 1,147 from the “Near East” which includes Thailand, and 607 from Oceania. However, Mr Delahaye says that it is precisely because the base numbers are small that the potential for growth is high.

Pope Benedict’s visit last September gave Lourdes a particular fillip with an estimated 300,000 pilgrims tabulated over the three-day period.

Visitors stay an average of three days. The city boasts 220 souvenir shops and now claims to be “France’s 2nd hostelry city” with 208 hotels (26,000 beds), six tourist residences, (462 apartments) and 11 campsites (2,407 beds).

Most of the visits take place between April-October when the Lourdes railway station sees a throughput of roughly 1.2 million passengers with nearly 700,000 pilgrims. It also boasts a special pavilion which was renovated in 2000 to allow the sick to be taken care of from the time they leave the train until their transfer to the hospitals and other specialised centres.

The city’s tourist literature says, “It is interesting to see how, for 150 years, Lourdes has been communicating the need to drink at the Massabielle Source. Based on the quest of the Miracle in the late 19th century, the hope of healing is still alive today.”

It says the city has survived social changes, industrialisation, major conflicts and economic crises. In fact, it adds, “the wars have strengthened the spiritual needs that are intrinsic to human nature. Lourdes has lived all these stages, and has kept its place at the heart of suffering. It has always been a source of hope.”

Another social change has been the “neglect of religious practices” and the subsequent “lack of priests in the whole of Western Europe.” That has meant re-inventing itself away from just religious and spiritual visits to attracting regular tourists based on a message of “the coming together of different cultures.”

The brochure says that today people “have less of a sense of belonging, we socialise differently, the employment market is undergoing transformation. Thus access to culture, leisure, sports and relaxation activities has been modified. We are living in an individualistic era. Spiritual quest, too, has modified practices: energy-seeking, peace of mind and self-knowledge quests are emerging in the guise of new natural therapies.

“ Lourdes is changing to a universal message accessible to all.”

Although the city has undergone significant upgrade, the visitor literature is refreshingly honest in terms of its shortcomings.

“ Lourdes suffers from the confinement of a small town subjected to sprawling growth. The roads are not adapted to the millions of visitors. There is permanent conflict between pedestrians and vehicles, road traffic difficulties, and sometimes problems with complex parking arrangements.

“ In order to improve the situation significantly and beyond the annual planning and maintenance programmes, the town council is reflecting on a new plan for urban development, taking into account pedestrians, every-day users, light vehicles, deliverers and big carriers. At the same time essential environmental factors are to be integrated.”

That will include dealing with another kind of fallout – in 2008, the city estimates 2.92 million candles were lit, weighing roughly 840 tons. No figures were available on the smoke emissions.

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