Greece gears Christian heritage for tourism

Having for decades relied on its archaeological wealth to draw tourism, Greece now seeks to exploit an equally rich religious tradition to entice visitors from fellow Orthodox Christian countries. Inspired by the success of pilgrimage sites such as Santiago de Compostella in Spain, the Greek Tourism Ministry intends to tap a bountiful heritage of churches, relics and miraculous icons dating back to the Byzantine Empire. First in line are plans for an itinerary titled «In the Footsteps of Saint Paul,» recreating the journey undertaken by the well-traveled apostle between 49 and 56 AD from northern Greece to Crete, via Athens and Corinth. The late Pope John Paul II carried out a mini-version of the pilgrimage in 2001, visiting the site beneath the Acropolis where Paul preached to the Athenians in around 52 AD. «One only has to look at the success of Tibetan monasteries» to realize the market potential, the Tourism Ministry’s special advisor on the issue, Polycarpos Efstathiou, told AFP. The powerful Greek Orthodox Church favors the government’s tourism initiative – in principle – as long as it can retain a central role in how the program is run. «We will bring ideas forward, and suggest which monuments will be utilized, and the Greek state will help guarantee their respectful use and provide maintenance,» said Father Spyridon, the cleric supervising the issue on behalf of the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Greek Orthodox Church. Church and state will work together to prepare a new law on religious tourism, expected to be ready in March 2006. Monasteries, icons with reputed miraculous powers and religious festivals across the country are under consideration for the initiative, which is mainly aimed at attracting fellow Orthodox believers from Russia and the prosperous Greek diaspora in the United States and Australia. The Greek Tourism Ministry is hoping to boost the number of Russian visitors, who today number 150,000 per year. But Father Spyridon is quick to stress that all the faithful, Christian or not, are welcome. Efstathiou, the tourism special advisor, said that a pilot program bringing in Protestant and Catholic visitors is already under way with assistance from the Orthodox bishop of Germany. Tourism professionals are praising the initiative, hoping to boost a specialized market which currently numbers some 50,000 visitors a year. «It’s not a mass activity, but we can work all year long, and in areas with poorly developed tourism, such as northern Greece,» said Yiannis Evangelou, chairman of the Hellenic Association of Travel and Tourist Agencies (HATTA). Evangelou notes, however, that the flower of Greece’s religious tradition – the Mount Athos monastic community in northern Greece – is unlikely to open to mass operators. Considered one of Orthodox Christianity’s holiest sites, Mount Athos’s some 20 monasteries are also barred to female visitors under a strict tradition dating back more than 1,000 years, and which generous European Union maintenance subsidies have failed to shake. The community’s strict code has made it a choice destination for high-ranking visitors seeking solitude, including Britain’s Prince Charles and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who conducted a private pilgrimage to the site in September.