Two years after the start of the pandemic, Britons, Germans and Americans are again straying to Sahagún. You are on the Way of St. James in the province of León and stop in the small town where, like in almost all Spanish cities, the death of Jesus is celebrated again after a two-year break as a big festival with processions, a chapel and lots of alcohol and good food. “It may seem strange to some. But his death redeemed people from their sins, that’s how the Spaniards see it,” says Enrique Sancho, Spanish expert on religious customs and their importance for tourism.
According to data from the Archbishops’ Conference in Spain, there are 92 Catholic festivals in the country that have acquired the protected title of “national tourist interest”, another 42 even the seal of “international tourist interest”. These include the Easter processions in Seville and Malaga, the adoration of the Virgin of Rocio in the province Huelva as well as the sanfermines in Pamplona, which are known worldwide for the running of the bulls. According to the Bishops’ Conference, the turnover associated with religious festivals accounts for more than three percent of Spain’s GDP.
The tremendous economic power of faith
“But the pompous religious festivals are also a key reason why, according to a study by the flight comparison site Jetcost Spain was the most popular travel destination for Europeans during this Easter holiday,” says religion expert Sancho. Pilgrims are particularly popular with hotels, shops and restaurants, as they spend more than twice as much as a pilgrim, according to a study by the Galician University of Santiago de Compostela regular tourist.”Especially the Americans and Koreans,” says Miguel Fernández, a member of the brotherhood in Sahagún that finances and organizes the Easter processions.
Most people don’t care if it’s only half-truths that are acknowledged. The bull breeders’ association “Unión de Criadores de Toros de Lidia” estimates that tourists spend around 45 million euros a year in the Sanfermines. The story of Saint Fermin, in whose honor the bulls are hunted through the city, is just as unclear as whether the apostle James is really buried in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. In the past ten years, despite the doubts, the number of hikers on the Camino de Santiago has more than doubled. Around 400,000 people make their way to Santiago de Compostela every year.
From education to tourism – the church takes on many tasks
“It’s about cohesion and not so much about faith. The foreigners like that. That’s why there is still enormous potential for Spain in this area,” believes Sancho. Along with Latin American countries, Spain has the Congress “Congreso Internacional de Turismo Religioso y Sustentable” set up where priests and clergy exploit the economic possibilities of religion as a holiday destination. Last year it took place in Pamplona, probably one of the best examples of how religion can become an economic factor for a city. Here the ultra-Catholic Prelature Opus Deí established the University of Navarra
brought to life, which is one of the best in the country. Although there are over 600 cases of abuse within the church in Spain that are still awaiting clarification, these, like many cases of corruption in the past, do not seem to have harmed the business of religion.
This is also due to the fact that the Spanish Church has not only been actively involved in the government and monarchy since the dictatorship, but also still takes on many tasks of the state in a democracy. Their schools and universities are considered to be the best in the country. A 2016 study by EY found that the Spanish church also takes over many functions of the state, saving taxpayers money. In 2016, the church spent almost 1.4 billion euros – five times more than the Spaniards paid in church taxes.
69 dioceses, 23,000 parishes and 750 monasteries provide education, food distribution and many other social services. They have also accumulated enormous art treasures, which are now to be promoted nationally and used for tourism. The cornerstones for the religion business are laid early. According to the Archbishops’ Conference, there are more than 1.5 million children attending one of the 2,586 Catholic formation centers. For comparison: In Germany there are not even half the number of religious schools with a population that is almost twice as large.
Jesuits and Opus Deí with the greatest influence
When it comes to influencing the economy and politics, the business schools, led by Jesuits (ESADE) and the ultra-Catholic Opus Deí prelature (IESE), are particularly decisive. Sympathizers of both schools of thought are at every control point in the Spanish economy. The former Economics Minister Luis de Guindos is committed to Opus Deí, as is Isidro Fainé, Chairman of the La Caixa Bank Foundation.
The current Spanish left-wing government is trying to curtail the power of the church, but that seems almost impossible. “In Spain, more than anywhere else in Europe, faith is part of the culture and also part of tourism. Atheists also make pilgrimages and take part in the processions,” says Sancho.