It may be sacrilegious to call it an industry, but centuries ago the Church made huge profits out of pilgrims who would pay people to pray for their sins. Today, visits to holy sites are more low key affairs. In a Catholic Lithuania sacral tourism still has tremendous spiritual significance to the people. It's a shame that they don't come to spend money. It seems that the idea that you can buy your way into heaven just doesn't cut it anymore. This week's Industry Insider is about sacral tourism.
VILNIUS - Lithuania leads the Baltic triplet in religious tourism development. While religious tourism is alive and well in all three countries, tourism officials say religious tourism must be made more accessible.
"The problem I see is that sacral tourism usually exists next to the official recreational tourism, and there is no separately developed sector for it," said Maija Poca, director of Riga's tourist information center.
Bartlomiej Kowal, who is the executive director of the Lithuanian tourism information center in Warsaw, agreed with Poca. "Although sacral tourism remains the most developed tourism in Lithuania, it still needs some investment to be done," he said.
Poca noted that there is an increase of pilgrims in Latvia only on Aug. 15 's the day of the Assumption of Mary, when thousands of pilgrims come to see the Aglona basilica in the country's Preili District.
"Unfortunately, we don't do prearranged packages on religious tours. We just provide tourists with brochures, which give them some basic information about the spots they should visit if going on a pilgrim trip in Latvia," she said.
Helera Pleer, a specialist at Parnu Tourist Information Center in Estonia, said that the situation in Estonia is quite similar. "We have lots of [religious] buildings and holy graves because of the country's historical past. However, our travel agencies do not arrange routes which would encompass only those places," she said. Pleer also noted that holy sites in Estonia are just one stop among many on the sightseeing tours.
So is the spirit of the pilgrimage being lost because of the attempt to attract a wider audience? Gintautas Indriunas, a head of tourism development at the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism, said that pilgrim tourism was still special because people were not only concerned with visiting the places, but also with praying there.
"Pilgrim tourism is not as profitable as, for example, recreational," Indriunas said. "However, it is still important for Lithuania. Those people who take pilgrim routes and see [sites] such as Trakai or the Hill of Crosses are likely to be interested in visiting the rest of Lithuania [where they] would make a positive contribution to the Lithuanian tourism industry in general," he added.
Indriunas also noted that the Lithuanian government has already allocated funds for religious tourism, with plans for making brochures and posters about holy sites and restoring religious buildings. "The project was launched this year and we see it as an important aspect of tourism development," Indriunas said.
Indriunas also pointed out the EU-funded Polish-Lithuanian pilgrim route that links all Lithuanian holy sites. Although mostly targeted at Polish people, the route is expected to be quite popular among pilgrims from other countries as well.
Kowal agreed that the project was a good idea. According to the Lithuanian tourism center's research, more than 100,000 Polish tourists visit Lithuania every year.
Polish, Portuguese, Italians, Germans and even Americans visit Lithuania's holy sites, but facilities for them are few and far between. "There are only a few abbeys and parishes which voluntarily established pilgrim hotels and arranged the routes for the tourists. I think a pre-planned route will give easier access for those tourists," Kowal said.
The tour company Lithuanian Holidays offers tours that hit the most important Catholic spots in the Baltics. For example, one route starts with the Gates of Dawn then winds its way across the country to the final stop: Siluva, known as "the Lithuanian Lourdes."
The company also offers a Jewish heritage tour. "The tour encompasses Jewish holy sites in Lithuania, Latvia and now even Estonia, after the synagogue was opened there," the director of the company, Nijole Pakalniene, said. "In that way, the holy Jewish sites of all three Baltic countries are gathered in one tour."
Simon Gurevicius, the executive director of the Jewish community of Lithuania, said that the industry cannot omit Jewish heritage. "I wish religious tourism was more developed in all three Baltic countries. Jews who come would have better access to holy sites and â€¦ the Jewish community," he said.