Lourdes organizes its first online pilgrimage as the city fights to save tourism

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The Sanctuary of Lourdes is today organizing its first online pilgrimage because one of the most visited tourist destinations in France is struggling to recover from the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus.

Nicknamed “Lourdes United”, the organizers will broadcast live from 7 am to 10 pm (Paris time zone) a series of celebrations, including masses, processions and prayers. In addition to the priests, several guests will speak about the impact of a visit to Lourdes on their lives.

The event is held on July 16 which marks the anniversary of the 18th and last time that a teenage girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed that Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to her in the middle of the 19th century. Bernadette’s claims, including the discovery of a source whose waters believe to have healing power, led the church to eventually build a massive cathedral on the site in this southwest corner of France at the foot of the Pyrenees.

Although generally considered one of the most important holy places of the Catholic Church, Lourdes is also a major tourist destination thanks to the 3 million religious pilgrims who visit each year to participate in the processions and bathe in its waters. The national pilgrimage to Lourdes last August attracted 25,000 visitors for a day.

In France, Lourdes records the second highest number of hotel stays each year, just behind Paris. Wandering the streets of this city, which has only 15,000 full-time residents, we find city streets lined with hotels and religious souvenir shops.

While the entire travel industry in France has been beaten, the pandemic has struck an even greater blow in Lourdes where more than 80% of the economy depends on tourism.

Much of this tourism economy has been fueled over the years by pilgrimages in large groups, especially from Italy. But just over a decade ago, these group pilgrimages fell due to economic and demographic changes in the Catholic Church. While congregations in Europe have declined, they are growing in South America, Africa and Asia. However, pilgrims from these regions tend to come alone or with a family member rather than in a large group of tourists.

In 2009, the city recorded 3,260,022 “overnight staysThe number of nights spent in a hotel. (Two people staying four nights is 8 ” overnight stays. ”) By 2017, overnight stays in Lourdes dropped to 2,005,732.

The city government has launched programs to revive this industry, in particular by trying to position Lourdes as a hub for exploring the Pyrenees. In addition, last year a producer based in Paris launched a lavish Broadway-style musical in the city called “Bernadette de Lourdes”.

The show was a success, selling its first season in Lourdes and generating a great buzz for the city. But this year, the musical had to cancel its second season because of the coronavirus.

Indeed, the sanctuary of Lourdes had to close its grounds for the first time in 162 years during the two months of closure of France. The field has been open since May to local tourists, and hosts a visit from the Pope.

But it did little to revive the local economy. Most stores and hotels remain closed. And the sanctuary, which had finally managed to balance its budget last year after experiencing deficits, now says it expects to lose 8 million euros ($ 9 million) this year.

Meanwhile, a new municipal government has just been elected and the mayor has already started holding public meetings with residents to develop a new economic strategy for Lourdes.

Many of the ideas discussed seemed to continue previous efforts to redefine the image of the city in order to attract more general tourists while moving slightly away from its Catholic image to promote a more general sense of spiritism and the meditative aspects of the visit. of the holy place. Even if one is not religious, local tourism officials believe that anyone can find inspiration at the sight of thousands of volunteers and local residents welcoming and supporting the flow of visitors, many of whom are in last phase.

For now, however, the city has to rely on the national government’s ongoing bailouts to keep many of its merchants and hotels in business until the return of international tourism.

“It may be a historic moment for Lourdes,” said Mayor Thierry Lavit, according to the newspaper La Dépêche. “This crisis has revealed an obsolete economic model. We have to create a new model, all together. “

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