France’s most famous pilgrimage site plans a new tourism future

Second in popularity to Rome for Catholics, Lourdes is taking lessons from the pandemic to broaden its offerings.

Sister Cecilia blows the seeds off a dandelion flower in front of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. Locals pray that a new plan will create a more sustainable tourism model for the famed pilgrimage city devastated by the pandemic.

For the first time in its history, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes—one of the world’s most important Catholic pilgrimage sites—was forced to close to the 20,000 souls who flock there every day.

France’s two-month pandemic lockdown, which began on March 17, 2020, left this holy site bereft of candle-carrying pilgrims. Vast parking lots purged their tour buses, religious souvenir shops secured their shutters, nearby hotels locked their doors.

Even as the COVID-19 crisis crippled the city that usually welcomes more than 3 million visitors a year, Lourdes didn’t stop praying. In fact, the pandemic prompted an unexpected reinvention of a place so firmly rooted in conservative tradition.

Technology became a tool to connect with the world, while also “creating a desire for pilgrims to return,” says Monseigneur Olivier Ribadeau Dumas. “Because we don’t live a pilgrimage from our couch.”

During the pandemic, the church received thousands of prayer intentions daily from people around the world. Led by chaplains in multiple languages, these prayers were aired on television and social media. Feutiers—so-called fire-keepers—continued to light thousands of candles, many initiated through online purchases, whereby a candle could be illuminated, at a distance, in a devotee’s name.

The technological innovation culminated in the world’s first virtual pilgrimage, which took place in July 2020. Broadcast in 10 languages, “Lourdes United” drew 80 million viewers. This spark of change has ignited in the tourist-dependent town—in France, second only to Paris in terms of hotel capacity—a desire to reimagine the future. Sustainability—of environment, economy, and above all faith—is the goal.

Miracles in Massabielle

Situated near the border with Spain, the Occitan-speaking town of Lourdes landed on the world map in 1858, when Bernadette Soubirous, an uneducated and impoverished 14-year-old, saw a series of 18 apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the Massabielle Grotto. Told by “the lady” to drink and bathe from a spring, Bernadette dug in the dirt until water gushed forth. This spring was said to have healing powers, and soon drew the sick and the suffering.

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Bernadette’s visions were later confirmed by the Vatican, and she was canonized as a saint in 1933. Seventy miracles have officially been recognized at Lourdes by the Catholic Church since 1862, the most recent occurring in 2008 (and required a decade to confirm). To mark the centennial of the apparitions, the underground Basilica of Saint Pius X was constructed to accommodate 25,000 people—second only in size to the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s.

For generations of pious French families, Lourdes has been a fundamental part of their faith, a destination as much for honeymoons as for healing. But Lourdes’s fame spread well beyond French borders, and even inscribed in international popular culture. Czech-born Jewish author Franz Viktor Werfel, having escaped the Nazis by sheltering for several weeks in Lourdes, trumpeted the tale in the bestselling novel The Song of Bernadette (1941), later transformed into an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie.

Indeed the majority of Lourdes’ pilgrims come from abroad, lending the city a cosmopolitan vibe. Lourdes is home to 25 nationalities, including a Tamil community originally from Sri Lanka. Even non-Catholics are drawn to the spirituality they sense here, the sight of thousands of people coming together in optimistic, hopeful togetherness. Because above all, Lourdes embraces the masses.

“It is a place of the people’s piety, not a place for intellectuals,” explains Ribadeau Dumas. “We welcome people who don’t have words for expressing their faith. Here they can, because it’s the heart that expresses itself in the fundamental gestures of Lourdes: touching the rock, drinking the water, walking in the procession with a lighted candle.”

(Pilgrimages could be the next post-COVID travel trend.)

Rethinking tourism

Over time, Lourdes became dependent on the 300 million euros generated annually by these pilgrimages, the city’s economy linked as tightly to religious tourism as the beads of a rosary. The development of the French railroad directly contributed to the city’s growth as a destination; specialized pilgrim trains equipped with hospital beds were launched. The tourism model was soon set in stone: Most pilgrims arrive in large groups organized by tour operators during a season that runs from April through October. The negotiated hotel rates are cheap, with meals often included.

This funnel of pilgrims has shaped the character of the town, a cityscape molded by mass tourism and marked by faded souvenir shops. In fact, it almost looked like the destination’s best days were behind it. Lourdes had seen a steady decline in visitors over the past decade.

When the sanctuary suffered a loss of visitors during the pandemic, the city buckled, decimated by unemployment and a loss of revenue. The pandemic exposed the perils of an economy wholly dependent on religious tourism.

After the initial two-month quarantine, visitors only numbered 800,000 for the entire year of 2020, and the visitor profile—independent travelers—was completely different from that of the usual tour groups.

“The pandemic invited us to rethink our pastoral actions,” says Ribadeau Dumas. To welcome this new type of visitor with no knowledge of what to expect, the sanctuary changed its approach. Historically, pilgrims are grouped with their own guides and priests who lead them through the experience. For individuals, the sanctuary created a “Pilgrim for the Day” program, which includes background information, a Mass, and a guided visit, among other things.

“We need a larger inclusion of the type of people we welcome," Ribadeau Dumas continues. “My responsibility, within this epoch marked by a de-Christianization of our country and our society, is to envision what’s necessary to do, so that in 2030 Lourdes can still fulfill its mission.”

Government leaders, too, have seized upon the need for visitor diversification. New mayor Thierry Lavit, who has a distant family link with Bernadette Soubirous, perceives an opportunity for the city because of the health crisis. “It’s like hitting a giant reset button,” he says.

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Because the system had been working for years, there was no reason to change. In essence, the city—built to accommodate mass tourism—had been frozen in time. Now the government’s “Avenir Lourdes” plan—still in its early stages—sets in motion an ambitious 10-year blueprint to rebuild the destination by modernizing and attracting new visitors in a sustainable way. Aiding the plan’s eventual implementation is the massive 140 million-euro rescue package earmarked by the French state.

In February, Lourdes launched an electric bike- and car-sharing program with adjacent townships. The night train line (eliminated in 2016), an affordable and sustainable means of transportation, will run again beginning this December. A wide-scale greening program has begun with the Peyramale square, which used to house the giant glass tourist office, now moved a few blocks away. Next on the agenda is pedestrianizing large swaths of the city and cleaning up the riverside quays.

While the sanctuary remains the principle destination, other attractions will draw a different clientele. Among them, a reconfigured “medieval” walking path would bring tourists to the upper town, featuring the ancient fortified castle currently being restored, where Charlemagne besieged and defeated an occupying Moorish chief in A.D. 778.

“I call Lourdes ‘Sleeping Beauty,’” Lavit says. “You have to believe, mobilize, do everything to wake her up.”

The pandemic’s big sleep has inspired necessary change in Lourdes, while restoring its historical function as a place of prayer and hope. Photographer Séverine Sajous—who is distantly related to Bernadette Soubirous—now sees her native region with a new perspective.

“I grew up in a non-practicing family and rediscovering Lourdes raised questions for me about my spirituality,” says Sajous, whose photographs appear in this article. “For me, this place—emptied of the usual crowds during the pandemic—was distilled to its original purpose and message, at the same time replenishing the spirit.”

Mary Winston Nicklin is a freelance writer and editor based in Paris and Virginia. Find her on Twitter.

Séverine Sajous is a photographer based in Barcelona, Spain. Her work centers on the human condition, focused most recently on migration and refugee issues. Follow her on Instagram.

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