Very few people are seen in the area surrounding the Colosseum, which would usually be full of tourists, in Rome, March 2. CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters

Virus causing pilgrims to stay home

  • March 11, 2020

Uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus is starting to take a toll on Canadian tour operators who have booked pilgrimages, particularly to Italy where the whole nation went into a lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The situation changes day-to-day for tour operators who began booking tours to holy sites in Rome and at the Vatican months ago, often selling out all spaces, only to have new developments wreak havoc with their plans and those of travellers. Concerns over the deadly virus that by March 10 had infected more than 116,000 people worldwide has seen a number of tours rescheduled to later in the year.

“The situation is very fluid now,” said one Toronto-based tour operator who asked that he and his agency not be named. “Nobody really has clear strategies, starting with the government, through the airlines and the travel agencies. We just go by the day’s developments.”

Currently, most travel advisories from the Canadian government are centred on China — where the virus originated — and other Asian nations. But northern Italy has also fallen under a travel advisory because of COVID-19 (about 9,200 cases with 463 deaths as of March 10), as has Iran which has seen 8,000 cases with 291 deaths. So far in North America the numbers have been relatively few, though there have been a number of cases and deaths since COVID-19 first appeared earlier this year (27 deaths have been reported from 761 cases in the United States, while a single death is reported among the 77 Canadian cases).

Though the area around Rome has not seen a rash of COVID-19 cases, travellers are understandably worried. Tour operators have been contacted by many would-be pilgrims with concerns about the situation in Italy. Popular pilgrimage sites, including St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican museums, have been temporarily closed. Those developments have seen some spring tours to Rome and the Vatican postponed until the fall.

“We’re postponing the journey,” said Vincent Veerasuntharam, CEO of Connaissance Travel and Tours in Toronto. “We’re not taking any risk.”

“We are careful and we will not be sending people in harm’s way,” added the anonymous tour operator.

Operators’ hands are tied by the daily developments and how others respond to the crisis. A quick scan of travel websites shows that many of the always popular tours to Italy are sold out or have only a few spots available, but that just means in many cases these sites have not been updated.

One pilgrimage that has not been affected yet is one of the big ones that comes around only once a decade — the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany. This year is to be the 42nd version of the Passion Play from May 16 to Oct. 4. It originated in the village of Oberammergau in 1633 as the plague swept across many parts of Europe, including Oberammergau, killing thousands. The villagers promised God they would perform the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ every 10th year “in so far as no one was to die of the plague anymore,” according to the official Oberammergau website. The first Passion Play took place the following year after the villagers’ prayers were answered.

So far, plans call for the play to be performed this year as no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen district where Oberammergau is located. But organizers say they are taking the virus “very seriously.”

“We are monitoring developments very closely and are in an intensive and close exchange with the responsible health authorities, with whom we are coordinating all necessary steps,” said a statement from organizers. “It goes without saying that we guarantee the highest possible standards of hygiene, safety and medical care at this year’s Passion Play and the Youth Days (a new feature aimed at young adults).”

Not all pilgrimage destinations are feeling the effects. Holy Land tours remain popular, although the Church of the Nativity and Shepherd’s Field in Bethlehem have been closed. Other pilgrimage sites are taking precautions. Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine in France has announced pilgrims are still welcome, but its pools where pilgrims bathe for its healing powers closed temporarily at the end of February.

The French Church of St. Louis in Rome, home to three famous Caravaggio paintings, was closed for several days at the beginning of March because one of its resident priests tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from France and northern Italy. In Dublin, the March 17 St. Patrick’s parade has been cancelled.

Tour operators are fielding plenty of calls from concerned pilgrims, but for the most part people have been very understanding of the situation, said Veerasuntharam. Much of that, he said, is because journeys of faith are very important to people and they don’t want to miss out.

“Faith-based travel is a life-altering experience, so the pilgrims themselves are committed to go,” he said. “But if there is an imminent risk for health reasons, they’d rather not go…. They’re a little bit disappointed, but they understand.”

Veerasuntharam added that just as pilgrims have been understanding, tour operators are also cognizant of the unusual situation and are doing everything to be accommodating to pilgrims as well.

Veerasuntharam has seen the ups and downs in the travel industry over the years and the effects of events like 9/11, the Gulf Wars and periodic outbursts of Mideast violence. This time it’s different.

“It never went to the heart of Europe, in Italy,” he said.

He’s also not seen the media saturation — fuelled by the rise in social media — surrounding an event like this before.

In the end, tour operators are expecting to take a hit to their bottom lines.

“It will definitely have an impact,” said the anonymous tour operator.”

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