By Zsarlene B. Chua
WHILE FRANCE welcomes millions of tourists each year, many visit this center of culture as part of a more all-encompasing European tour. Now, the French tourism department seeks to entice travelers to view France not as an “along the way destination” but rather THE destination.
Part of those efforts is promoting several locations and their unique value propositions to entice visitors to stay longer or seek out the country alone in Europe. And because the Philippines is a largely Catholic nation, A Tout France (France Tourism) is trying to sell the pilgrimage town of Lourdes to Filipino devotees.
Located at the foothills of the Pyrenees mountain range — the natural border between France and Spain — Lourdes was a sleepy town with a little over 4,000 inhabitants in 1858 when Bernadette Soubirous started seeing Marian apparitions. Soon enough, word spread and believers trooped to the town to pay their respects in what is now known as the pilgrim city.
Today’s visitors go to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes — where the water from the grotto is believed to have healing properties — or attend masses. Mass pilgrimages occur from March to October, with people attending the nightly candlelight procession.
The town now welcomes millions of tourists a year — local hotel records counted 2.1 million overnight visitors in 2014, though, according to Corine Laussu, the promotions executive of the Lourdes Tourism Office, the number of visitors is actually higher.
“It is hard to count exactly how many people visit Lourdes (and the sanctuary of the Lady of Lourdes) as there are those who would only go on day trips and not stay for days in the city,” Ms. Laussu told BusinessWorld when she met the local press on Feb. 19 in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City.
She noted that visitors stay for three days on average.
“Majority of the pilgrims come from Europe — Italy, Spain, etc. — and we have more and more people coming from South America, and now, for the last five years, more and more people are coming from the Philippines,” she said, noting that around 10,000 Filipinos troop to the city every year.
She attributes the rise to Filipinos being able to travel more because “they are ready to discover new countries.”
In 2015, 86.7 million people visited France, said Morad Tayebi, Southeast Asia’s (SEA) regional director of A Tour France. By 2020, the department projects that the number will rise to 100 million and in that period 40,000 to 50,000 Filipinos will be going to the country.
“In 10 years, the Philippines will be the second market after Indonesia in SEA,” he told BusinessWorld in the same event. Currently, the top markets in the region is Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, but Indonesia and the Philippines are expected to overtake them in a decade “if there are more direct flights and easier visa processes.”
Aside from being a pilgrim city, Lourdes also boasts of being “a refuge far from the crowd,” according to a press release, as the city was able to keep its Bigorre stone houses from ancient times.
The city is also said to be the best place for a panoramic view of the Pyrenees at 1,000 meter-high in Pic du Jer — a summit of the Haute-Pyrenees — accessible through a funicular railway which takes visitors to the peak in 15 minutes.
There is also a castle for tourists to view: the Château-fort of Lourdes which now houses the Pyrenean Museum which focuses on the history of the Pyrenean region.
“There’s many things to do. We’re close to the ocean, so you can go to the Basque country, you can go to Spain — have a Spanish experience. We are close to Toulouse — the capital of the region, and hometown of the Airbus factory, and [we are] five hours away from Carcassone, which is the oldest medieval city in Europe… many things to do,” Ms. Laussu said.
She added that tourists won’t have a hard time finding a place to stay as the town is second to Paris in number of rooms, with 169 hotels (ranging from five stars to unclassified) offering a total of 24,067 beds.