Greece is ready to exploit its rich religious tradition in order to entice visitors from fellow Orthodox Christian countries with the Greek Tourism Ministry intending to tap a bountiful heritage of churches, relics and miraculous icons dating back to the Byzantine Empire. Church and state will work together to prepare a new law on religious tourism, expected to be ready in March 2006.
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 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. It said it would bring ideas forward, and suggest which monuments will be utilized, and the Greek state will help guarantee their respectful use and provide maintenance.
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 North America and Australia.
Tourism professionals are praising the initiative, hoping to boost a specialized market that 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, say the country’s travel agents.
They say that the oil in the ointment is 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’ some 20 monasteries are also barred to female visitors under a strict tradition dating back more than 1,000 years. The community’s strict code, however, 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 this past September.