‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’: Philippines lures foreigners with religious tourism


Devotees jostle while trying to reach the carriage of the image of the Black Nazarene as they participate in the annual procession at Chinatown, Metro Manila, Philippines Jan 9, 2018. Source: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

AS THE ONLY largely Christian nation in Asia, the Philippines hopes to draw more foreign tourists, especially Catholics from all over the world, through religious tourism.

Tourism Secretary Wanda Corazon Tulfo-Teo expressed confidence that the archipelagic nation with a population of more than 100 million – 80 percent of them Roman Catholics – has huge potential to create a religious tourism niche, citing the country’s rich and diverse religious cultural heritage dating back many centuries.

“The Philippines is an ideal destination for religious pilgrimage, not only for sightseeing, but to actually experience time-honored Filipino traditions dating back to pre-Spanish era,” she said in a statement.

Tulfo-Teo pushed religious tourism as a niche to further attract foreign tourist arrivals as the Philippines successfully concluded three major religious events this month.

More than a million devotees joined the annual Translacion of the Black Nazarene on Jan 9 in Manila, a spectacular religious event where a sea of barefoot believers participate in the procession and hustle their way to touch or wipe with towels the image carried by a carriage. In the past, the procession could last for 24 hours.

Last week, three major annual religious festivals in the Visayas island – the Sinulog in Cebu City, Dinagyang in Iloilo City and Ati-Atihan in Kalibo, Aklan province – in honour of Santo Niño or the Holy Infant Jesus were successfully held.

Catholics in Mindanao island also annually paid tribute to the Santo Niño.

Devotees join the festivals hoping for miracles or to thank God for answering their prayers or petitions.

Teo said the major religious festivities showed the country’s potentials of drawing more international visitors, who seek to personally witness and experience unique traditions, particularly the Filipinos’ veneration and devotion to Jesus Christ.

Nearly two million people gathered to celebrate Sinulog, culminating in a grand parade of contingents of performers from neighboring cities and provinces, including Catbalogan City, Samar, Leyte, Bohol and North Cotabato.

“Plans are underway to make the Philippines a destination with unique spiritual significance that will attract millions of pilgrims from all corners of the world,” Teo said.

She also said the Department of Tourism (DOT) will propose a budget for the restoration and development of historical shrines and old churches all over the country, which also serve as tourist attractions.

Tulfo-Teo, however, did not reveal which sites will be restored or developed.

The proposed project will be part of preparations for the 2021 commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in Cebu, marking the introduction of Christianity in the Philippines.

magellan's cross

The famous Magellan’s Cross is housed in a chapel next to the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño on Magallanes Street just in front of the city center of Cebu City. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tulfo-Teo noted that there are 6.6 million Catholics in Asia, which is a prospective market for faith-based tourism in the Philippines.

In South Korea alone, the Philippines’ top tourist market, there are five million Catholics while there are 800,000 in Malaysia, 500,000 in Japan, 200,000 in Thailand and 185,000 in Singapore.

“We are coordinating with the stakeholders, particularly tour operators to come up with attractive spiritual tour packages,” said tourism officer Marissa Diploma.

Foreign tourist arrivals in the Philippines from January to October 2017 reached 5.5 million, up by 12 percent from 4.9 million for the same period in 2016, DOT data showed.