Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Is Religion Mallorca's Alternative Tourism?

What has happened with the proposal for a Christian theme park (last heard of somewhere near Inca)? It may well have been quietly forgotten, which would be unsurprising as it is/was a bit odd to say the least. This said, the religious element, where tourism is concerned, is not in the least bit odd.

Religious tourism is the oldest form of tourism. It is not, in its original manifestations, what we would call tourism nowadays, but pilgrimages were a type of tourism. They still are, and nowhere in Spain receives more pilgrims than Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims, though, are only one facet of religious tourism. Indeed, it is not necessary for a tourist to be a pilgrim or in any way religious in order to take part in and to enjoy religious tourism. The very word "religious" may turn many visitors off, but religious tourism embraces several different elements. Spirituality is or can be one, but there are others - history, culture, architecture, music, literature, folklore, ethnology and the weird niche known as "dark" tourism (cemeteries, atrocities and other such stuff).

On 28 March 1515 Teresa of Ávila was born. She became Saint Teresa of Jesus. She is considered an important figure in the history of the Catholic Church and in Spanish history. A national commission may be established in order to draw up events to commemorate the 500th anniversary of her birth in 2015. Meantime, the tourism minister for the region of Castile and León has already announced a tourism "product" related to Saint Teresa and one that will include collaboration with four other regions of Spain.

On 24 November 1713 Miguel Joseph Serra was born in the Mallorcan town of Petra. He became Father Junipero Serra, an important figure in Mallorcan history and in the history of California. 2013 has been Serra's "year". The climax of this year, one guesses, will be on or around the twenty-fourth of next month. One guesses, but what has really been made of the 300th anniversary of the birth of this significant person?

While the Ávila celebration would clearly be much grander in scope and would focus on a very much better known religious figure, a fear might be that a tourism product would be mainly or only religious. Similarly, one fears, it is only the religion and the missionary efforts of Father Junipero that have dominated thinking regarding his anniversary.

Increasingly, I have come to question the notion of niching tourism products which are alternatives to the Mallorcan mainstream of sun and beach. The marketing mantra is that of niching, but a problem with niching is that it establishes a limit in terms of scope and appeal. Some niches do reasonably well by concentrating on a single product. Cycling is a case in point, but far from all cyclists are interested only in cycling. There are examples of businesses in Mallorca which promote essentially niche products, including cycling, but which offer a far wider experience. And they are right to do so.

Religious tourism as a niche is not or should not be solely about religion. If it is, then it comes with an in-built limit. To take Father Junipero, it may come as a shock to some Mallorcans to know how little his name means anything outside Mallorca and California, but had there been a genuine tourism "product" built around his anniversary and to be maintained going forward, then he would be but only part of a vastly bigger product. Mallorca's religious history is far from unimportant but it is a history whose appeal lies with the island's fabulous cathedral, churches, sanctuaries and hermitages. And these fabulous buildings are to be found everywhere, in every town on the island, in every town with a different landscape and a different story to tell, in every town with varying other interests, be they wildlife, gastronomy, wine, agriculture and fiestas and fairs.

The celebration of Saint Teresa would envisage a "route" that stretches as far as Seville. It will be a most interesting route, but it will be a long route and one that may neglect more secular interests. Mallorca as a religious tourism destination has one huge advantage over such a route. It is small, compact. And within this small and compact island there is masses of religion to be seen and enjoyed alongside everything else on the island. It would not be called religious tourism because the term would be a turn-off for too many. It would be The Mallorca Experience, the collective experience of all the different niches and one that is set apart from sun and beach because in winter Mallorca cannot compete on sun and beach.

Niching has its place, of course it does, but perhaps it has dominated thinking too much. It has become marketing religion, but real religion, marketed as a collective Mallorcan whole, could form an answer to prayers to address the drought and famine of winter tourism.

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