El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of Saint James, is an ancient network of roads across Europe leading to the shrine and supposed remains of the St. James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. It is a famous pilgrimage site. El Camino is one of the earliest established UNESCO heritage sites, and has inspired works of art in literature (Paulo Coelho, Ernest Hemingway) and film (Martin Sheen, Luis Bunuel).
Today, aside from pilgrims, hundreds of thousands of tourists (277,915 in 2016) make their way to El Camino de Santiago every summer. The majority travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a select few travel the traditional way — on either a horse or donkey.
Since attaining UNESCO world heritage status, the trail has seen a significant demographic shift. The trail is now regarded as a “bucket list item”, drawing many who do it for fun, exercise, or simply the experience of walking unguided in a foreign land. This change has diluted the spiritual and religious experience that inspired timeless works like The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho.
A quick Google search shows hundreds of tour operators and companies who market the trail, “selling” enlightenment and self-discovery. The local economy has blossomed due to an overabundance of hostels, bars, and even vending machines. An argument can be made that the economy built around the trail has improved many people’s lives, especially in the rural regions of Galicia where industrialization has not yet reached. But the industry built around it attracts those who partake for wrong reasons, promoting rent-seeking behaviour that sullies the religious and moral aspects of this experience.
The commercialization of spirituality is a recurring theme in all of the world’s major religions, and the evolution of the St. James Way is a prime example.
The once solitary journey is now hardly distinguishable from everyday life. The challenge of living without modern amenities has been taken away; people seeking solitude and self-reflection in their pilgrimage will be extremely disappointed.
The ancient history of the path originated from a born-again ritual, where pilgrims would walk across northern Spain to Cape Finisterre (which was believed to be the end of the world). Those who made the journey would experience a symbolic death and subsequent rebirth — their journey coming full circle as they returned home renewed. Doesn’t this reflect beautifully the essence of a spiritual journey?
What does a pilgrimage mean to you and what are your opinions towards the commercialization of spirituality? Does anybody have personal experiences they’d like to share?
I look forward to reading your comments below!