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Last Updated: Monday, 27 August 2007, 06:58 GMT 07:58 UK
Budget flights of faith
By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News website

The chartered flight service being launched by a Vatican-linked travel organisation along with an Italian airline has both lofty and more mundane goals. It aims to provide a journey of faith for pilgrims as well as turning a profit.

View of mass being celebrated at Lourdes, France
The first flight will shuttle pilgrims to Lourdes, in southern France

You can forget the complimentary bag of salted peanuts and plastic pot of orange juice because each plane ticket will come with unlimited spiritual refreshment, Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (ORP) suggests.

Flights are planned from Rome to many of the sites which draw hundreds of thousands of Catholic pilgrims seeking solace and or doing penance each year.

Monday's inaugural passengers are due to travel from the Italian capital to an airport just 10 minutes from the shrine of Lourdes in France.

But from December, planes emblazoned inside and out with the logo "Seeking your face, Lord" will be dropping off energetic faithful near Spain's Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, as well as at Poland's Czestochowa sanctuary and at the shrine to Fatima, in Portugal.

Increasing demand

There will also be flights to Jerusalem and to Sinai in Egypt, and special plans are even under way to jet thousands of young people to Sydney for the World Youth Congress next year.

Father Cesare, director of ORP which already shuttles some 400,000 Catholics to sites in Europe and beyond each year, says that the decision is motivated by the sheer demand for spirituality.

This is not a money-making operation. It is a service that we believe in
Father Cesare
Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi

"More and more people come to us wanting to go to the Holy Land, to go to Fatima, Lourdes and other places and sometimes it is difficult to find enough places on the scheduled flights on the airline to take these people there," he told the news website from Rome.

When going on a pilgrimage, he says, the journey itself is part of the experience.

But, for the Catholic Church, managing the flight itself as well as what follows enables it to be infused with messages from the start.

The hostesses will be specially trained, Father Cesare says, and even the headrest will carry the quotation from the psalm that will be the airline's motto.

Hindu pilgrims during the Ardh Kumbha Mela festival in Allahabad, India
Kumbha Mela, India: 75m
Lourdes, France: 6m
Mecca, Saudi Arabia: 2.5m
Figures per year. Source: UN World Tourism Organisation

"Then, during the flight, we have recorded and made some presentations in DVD and in compact disc to be able to transmit images or audio so people can listen to messages regarding the places they are going to visit... and there are also some moments of prayer. At the end of the day that is really what we do," he says.

Faith tourism is big business but it is impossible to know how much of the $735bn (540bn euros; 367bn) that the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimates is generated annually by international tourism belongs to this sector, which overlaps with cultural tourism.

No ordinary holiday

It is a competitive field, with one of the Vatican-linked routes in direct competition with that run by low-cost airline Ryanair.

Father Cesare says one of the aims of the new flights is to make pilgrimage more affordable.

"We need to make pilgrimage more accessible, this operation will allow us to beat down costs... We should be beating down the normal cost by 10-15%," he says.

But the Dublin-based carrier says it does not feel threatened.

"Ryanair already performs miracles that even the Pope's boss can't rival, by delivering pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela for a heavenly price," the airline told the BBC in a statement.

Ryanair and Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi cannot really be compared, insists Father Cesare, because they have such different aims.

"This is not a money-making operation. It is a service that we believe in. We want to make people take part in a religious experience that will help them grow in faith," he says.

"It is true that we do make a profit but that is not the main goal."

He estimates that at least 150,000 pilgrims will take the new flights each year, bringing the OPR's annual number of clients to almost half a million.

The average package includes food, flights, accommodation and "technical-religious assistance".

From foot to flight

The Vatican-approved decision to increase faith tourism reflects a broader change in what people are demanding from their holidays, according to the UNWTO.

"Tourism is increasingly seen as more of an experience and the spiritual element is an important component of this experience," Luigi Cabrini, director of the organisation's sustainable development department, told the BBC news website.

But, he says, many of those who journey along the Santiago de Compostela route in Spain, for example, are not strictly religious pilgrims.

View from the air of St Peter's Square, Vatican
Rome is a site of pilgrimage itself

"There may be a core group of Catholics who are undertaking the route as religious pilgrims but many others simply want to travel and meet others."

He says part of religious tourism's value is that it can contribute to increasing comprehension between different cultures.

"It has a value to the overall issue of dialogue between civilisations, it can promote a better understanding between people visiting the shrine or monument of religious value," he says.

Of course Christian pilgrimages form just a portion of those who travel to religious sites worldwide.

Some of the most important pilgrimages include an estimated 2.5 million Muslims taking part in the annual Hajj, travelling to Mecca and - perhaps the largest - the estimated 75 million Hindus taking part in the Kumbha Mela, which takes place in India four times every 12 years.

Though the methods of arriving at your destination may vary - from foot to flight - the meaning and motivation remains essentially the same, Father Cesare says.

"It is not only an intellectual experience it is something that you live through because your body moves, your senses are touched and the whole human being is involved."

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