Come all ye faithful: How religious tourism became big business

As the 'Tomb of Jesus' gets a makeover just in time for Easter...

Come all ye faithful: How religious tourism became big business

Religious souvenirs on sale as the relics of St Anthony of Padua are carried into the Church of the Visitation, in Fairview Dublin. Picture by: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

It might not be the world’s oldest profession, but as long as people have focused their faith on easily-identifiable landmarks, there’s been a bloke on a stall up the road flogging flimsy souvenirs to commemorate your time traipsing around it.

Getting medieval, Venetian traders were already bringing Europeans on trips around the Holy Land centuries upon centuries ago.

From the knick-knacks resembling weeping Virgin Marys lining shop windows in Knock to the luxurious Mecca hotels bumping up room prices for wealthy Hajj pilgrims, you can easily take L Ron Hubbard’s famous “if you want to get rich, start a religion” line and tack on “...and there’s a few bob to be made hopping on the bandwagon with some cheap merchandise later, to boot”.

Let’s turn first to the big players and take a look at the money-making machine that is the Roman Catholic Church, the godfather of wringing gold out of people’s piety.

With mass attendances falling across the Western world, the collection plate can’t be as heavy as it once was – the Church doesn’t like to officially disclose such matters – but there are always other ways to do business.

The tourism angle is perhaps even better to pursue, considering your potential customer base isn’t simply limited to those true believers who have been baptised.

Anyone with a vague interest in history, architecture and art is liable to ramble down to the local cathedral when they’re holidaying and, while general admission can generally be free, fast-track tickets, audio headsets and that gift shop greeting you at the entrance all add up.

The economies of places such as Lourdes in France, homes of apparently miraculous Christian events and pilgrimage sites, are powered by the more devoted of travellers. 

Much has been made of how the genial and somewhat liberal (by his predecessors’ standards) Pope Francis has restored the Church’s image since the shock retirement of the hardline and dour Benedict XVI and that’s translated into getting bums back on seats, so to speak.

In the first two years of his reign, tourism in Vatican City nearly tripled. To give a taste of his popularity, over 5.9 million people participated in Vatican events featuring the man himself in 2014 alone. Taking his worldwide encounters into account adds on nearly 13 million.

The Prefecture of the Papal Household confirmed that over 3.9 million attended papal events in the Vatican last year, with global terrorism cited as keeping some people away.

While that comes under the remit of religious observance and free admission was offered, 2014 also saw the Vatican get a bit more blatant in its fundraising efforts, as the Sistine Chapel was rented out for the first time – to Porsche.

Despite the official line that the chapel was “not a commercial place”, 40 fans of the high-end sports car manufacturer parted with $5,900 each to attend a gala beneath Michelangelo’s painted ceiling, with money changing hands between Porsche and Church officials.

When you factor in the stock exchange activity and real estate dealings the Church also has, it’s little wonder that 2011 data from the CIA placed Vatican city as the richest state on the planet. With a population of roughly 800 people, its nominal GDP per capita was $365,796.

They haven’t amassed the centuries of practice, and wealth, that the Catholic Church has, but younger offshoots of Christianity – particularly those in the capitalist paradise that is the United States – are finding novel ways to draw in the punters.

If you ever happen to be out Williamstown, Kentucky way and find yourself coming over all creationist, you should probably head straight for The Ark Encounter.

Billed as a “one-of-a-kind theme attraction” (and we can believe them), adult tickets start at $40, though you’ll have to pay more to check out the museum and a new exhibit that will help you “discover why the Bible is true”.

The centrepiece of this fundamentalist theme park, which threw open its doors last summer, is a full-scale model of Noah’s biblical vessel, spanning 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet high.

Staying southern, while it lacks the masterful grace of Michelangelo’s immortal brush strokes, The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, will give you your own personal Jesus (as portrayed by a host of actors).

Owned by the Trinity Broadcast Network, it includes replicas of a Jerusalem street market and Calvary's Garden Tomb.

Actor Lee Cheveldayoff plays Jesus at The Holy Land Experience. Picture by: ABACA ABACA PRESS/ABACA/PA Images

The (real) Holy Land

Speaking of which, if you’re looking for something a touch more authentic, Jerusalem continues to be a big draw in spite of recent conflict.

Ministry of Tourism officials forecast that 2017’s figures will surpass the record number of 3.54 million tourists Israel enjoyed four years ago.

The number of tourists coming from abroad to Israel hit an all-time high of 739,000 in the first quarter of 2017, up 24% year-on-year.

The sheer multitude of sacred and historic sites are not only too numerous to mention, they’re also cross-denominational.

The restored Edicule is seen during a ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, March 2017. Picture by: Sebastian Scheiner/Pool/Zuma Press/PA Images

This Easter, you can also add the revamped ‘Tomb of Jesus’ to your must-see list.

Just in time for the celebration of his resurrection, the traditional 'final resting place' of Jesus Christ has been fully restored after nine months of painstaking work, overseen by the World Monuments Fund (WMF).

The chamber where Jesus is believed to have been entombed is located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City and is already extremely popular. In October, the marble slab covering the tomb was lifted for the first time in over 200 years.

The $4m cost was covered by contributions from the six denominations which share custody of the church, as well as King Abdullah of Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Mica Ertegun, the widow of Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun.

The Islamic world

Followers of Muhammad, meanwhile, aim to make a trek to Islam’s holiest site at least once in their lifetime, and that drive to worship is worth as much as 3% of Saudi Arabia’s GDP.

The Hajj to Mecca brings in some $16.5bn to the economy, with numbers increasing in recent years due to the Middle East’s growing middle class.

The expectations around the standards of accommodation are also rising – today a stay at Makkah Palace, from the world-famous luxury hotel chain Raffles, offers massive suites and spa treatment overlooking the Grand Mosque and Kaaba shrine.

Pennies from heaven? You might have to dig a bit deeper.