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Europe's churches are overwhelmed by tourists, little space for devotees

With tourism surpassing pre-pandemic levels, sacred sites are struggling to accommodate the faithful and the millions of visitors who pay to see the art and architecture

Iconic churches across Europe, including Barcelona's famous La Sagrada Familia, are crowded with tourists this summer, often leaving little space for worshippers.
Iconic churches across Europe, including Barcelona's famous La Sagrada Familia, are crowded with tourists this summer, often leaving little space for worshippers. (Wikimedia Commons/Maksim Sokolov)

A recent Saturday evening Mass at Sagrada Familia parish had all the hallmarks of a neighborhood worship service, from prayers for ill and deceased members to name-day wishes for two congregants in the pews. But it also featured security checks to get in and curious tourists peering down to take photos of the worshippers from above. The regular Mass is held in the crypt of modernist architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece church, one of Europe’s most visited monuments.

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With tourism surpassing pre-pandemic levels in Barcelona and southern Europe, sacred sites are struggling to accommodate the faithful who come to pray and the millions of visitors who often pay to view the art and architecture. “We’re working to get ahead of this, so that we don’t get to a collapse,” said the Rev. Josep Maria Turull, rector at Sagrada Familia and the Barcelona archdiocese’s director for tourism, pilgrimage and sanctuaries.

An increasingly popular strategy is to have visitors and the faithful go separate ways, with services held in discrete places, visits barred at worship times, or altogether different entry queues.

This spring, the Vatican opened a separate “pathway” starting outside St. Peter's Basilica for those who want to enter to pray or attend Mass, so they wouldn't be discouraged by sometimes hours-long lines for the average of 55,000 daily visitors, said Basilica spokesperson Roberta Leone.

But the challenge remains: how to balance the churches’ competing roles amid the tourism surge without sacrificing their spiritual purpose. “It’s just really hard because you also want people to experience your faith,” said Daniel Olsen, a Brigham Young University professor who researches religious tourism. With an estimated 330 million people visiting religious sites yearly around the world, it’s one of the tourism market's largest segments.

Worshippers, who often come because celebrated churches tend to have more services than regular parishes, need free access even as tourists often pay fees that are crucial to maintaining the sites. “The temple needs to be a place for services and not a theme park,” said Joan Albaiges after Mass in the Sagrada Familia crypt, which he’s attended regularly for six decades.

Religious leaders say the histories of the sacred sites should be presented to visitors, who are increasingly unfamiliar with faith traditions in rapidly secularizing countries. “Some people go to the cathedral, and they don’t realize they’re in a church. It’s a situation that’s developing in nations that were majority Christian, and now faith is cooling off,” said José Fernández Lago, rector of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Filled with masterpieces from Romanesque sculpture to lavish Baroque decorations, Santiago’s cathedral attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims who since the Middle Ages have traveled along the Camino routes to venerate St. James’s tomb. To preserve its role as a revered pilgrims’ church, Lago said, the cathedral doesn’t charge entry fees, cap visitor numbers or require a dress code. On a hot early summer morning, a steady stream of pilgrims ducked each other’s selfie sticks in front of the jewel-encrusted St. James statue, some still in tight cycling shorts or sweat-stained hiking shirts. But visits aren’t allowed during the four daily Masses celebrated at the main altar, and priests as well as security guards constantly ask visitors to lower their voices to allow others to pray.

Co-existence between worshippers and tourists has been controversial at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. Built as a landmark cathedral in the Byzantine era, turned into a mosque by the conquering Ottoman empire in the 1400s, and then a museum for the last century. It was converted back to a functioning mosque in 2020. Now visitors can tour the structure for free outside of prayer hours. 

At many of Spain’s most-visited churches, the balance was often off-kilter in the opposite direction. So many visitors thronged the vast Basilica del Pilar in Zaragoza on a mid-June Saturday that it was nearly impossible to hear the midday Mass celebrated in the small chapel where a statue of Our Lady of the Pillar is venerated. With some 2.5 million annual visitors, Barcelona Cathedral was also close to a breaking point before its council revolutionized the worship vs. tours balance over the last few years. “It was like being in a market,” recalled Anna Vilanova, who directs the cathedral's tourism strategy. “We had to put some order.”

The cathedral instituted caps on visitor numbers, required tour groups to use wireless audio guides to reduce noise, and added staffers to explain the new policies to visitors and those coming for daily Mass or confession, held in a side chapel with crystal doors to preserve silence. “The point comes when tourism is so massive that it occupies the worship space,” said Xavier Monjo, who oversees the cathedral’s publications. “The cathedral is alive, it’s not a museum.”

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