Lights illuminate the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor in 2010 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The cathedral is the oldest in the Americas. CNS photo/Eduardo Munoz, Reuters

Destination Latin America: Promoting religious tourism

By  Ezra Fieser, Catholic News Service
  • December 10, 2011

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - Santa Maria la Menor, the oldest cathedral in the Americas, sits just off a busy plaza in this Caribbean city’s colonial district. However, it’s the nearby bronze Christopher Columbus statue, Hard Rock Cafe and cigar shops that draw the lines of tourists in the plaza.

“We came to see the colonial area. The churches are a nice part of that. But they’re not the reason we came,” said Maria Torres, who perused the shops that ring the plaza after snapping a photo of the statue.

A life-long Catholic, Torres, who was visiting from Spain, asked, “The oldest in the Americas? I had no idea.”

Catholic leaders here want to get the word out about the area’s significance. A spokesman for the archdiocese of Santo Domingo said it is trying to bring attention to the area as a key site for 500 years of religious history.

Working with tourism officials, the archdiocese developed “religious route” itineraries, taking tourists past 16 churches, convents, monasteries and hospitals that were the foundation of the development of Santo Domingo, the first city in the New World.

In August, it opened a museum dedicated to the area’s religious history, culminating a years-long effort by Cardinal Nicolas Lopez Rodriguez of Santo Domingo. The museum’s opening coincided with the end of the 500-year anniversary of the founding of the diocese.

Throughout Latin America, Catholic leaders and tourism officials are working to bring more attention to their religious places and events. More than five centuries since Columbus landed in the Caribbean and Catholicism began to spread through the hemisphere, the region is gaining recognition from international tourists.

“As a destination for faith-based tourism, we’re seeing Latin America receive more attention than it has in the past,” said Kevin Wright, director of growth markets at NTA, a Kentucky-based travel association. Years ago, Latin America was barely on the radar, but in what Wright called the “new era” of faith-based tourism, the region appeals to younger and more adventurous travellers.

“It offers a diversity of experiences,” he said.

Faith-based travel is worth an estimated $18 billion a year around the globe. The most popular destinations for Catholic pilgrimages remain, by far, the Holy Land and Europe.

Although they receive far less attention than traditional destinations, significant Catholic sights — such as the cathedral in Santo Domingo — are scattered throughout Latin America. They range from Mexico’s Basilica of Our Lady Guadalupe, considered one of the holiest places in the Americas, to breathtaking churches tucked into Andean valleys. Even the iconic symbol of Brazil’s most celebrated city, Rio de Janeiro, is a Catholic monument: Christ the Redeemer, towering over the city below.

Within the region, religious travel has long been an important cultural event. Holy Week, marked in many countries by elaborate, sombre processions, remains the busiest travel week for most countries in the region. The Guatemalan colonial city Antigua — population 45,000 — sees about 300,000 visitors that week.

Other places, such as Las Lajas Sanctuary, a nearly 100-metre-tall basilica built into a ravine in southern Colombia, attract visitors year-round; many pilgrims to Las Lajas cross the border from Ecuador on pilgrimage.

Las Lajas became the poster child of the Colombian government’s effort to attract more religious tourists when it launched a “Roads of Faith” promotional campaign last year. The campaign was aimed at drawing tourists from Spain, Italy and Latin American countries, said Ivan Mauricio Florez of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism.

The importance of promoting the destinations to tourists was highlighted in a message from the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travellers.

“It must be an objective priority of our pastoral care of tourism to show the true meaning of this cultural heritage, born from faith and for the glory of God,” said the 2011 World Tourism Day message. “We cannot allow ourselves to view the tourist visit as simply a step in pre-evangelization but ... we must see it as a platform to realize the clear and explicit announcement of Jesus Christ.”

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