As a professional with over ten years of experience in a travel agency, I never thought that El Camino de Santiago would take a space in the shelves and desks of the place where I work.
I have always heard wonderful stories from the pilgrims that walked El Camino: church groups, close friends, or even solitary pilgrims that threw themselves into the experience of walking the Saint James itinerary moved by religious interest,or at least spiritual or personal interest.
I decided to take this route five years ago, I did El Camino Francés, from Laguna de Castilla (Leon) to Santiago de Compostela. My experience corroborated what I had heard about it: concepts such as simplicity, eagerness to overcome challenges, friendship, meditation, emotion, all come to mind.
Before I started doing “my camino” I had to research, question many things, buy guides and go to the Association of Friends of El Camino of Valencia, where I am from, this was necessary to apply for my credential to present on arrival at the pilgrim shelters along El Camino.
I needed good advice before I started my journey, and even more so, bearing in mind that I was one of those (crazy people, according to some friends) that decided to “go solo”.
The European Council distinguished El Camino de Santiago in 1987 as the First Cultural Itinerary of Europe, recognising with it a series of historical routes that meet in Santiago de Compostela. These Jacobean routes became knowledge conveyors, of building techniques, of architectural styles, of languages and arts. They spread the Christian faith when other people and religions were putting pressure on Europe, it work as a homogenising force that now identifies Europe.
UNESCO also recognised the value of El Camino, declaring El Camino Francés in 1993 as World Heritage, according to their criteria II, IV and VI, i.e,: El Camino as a common support for the European culture, influence on numerous religious and civilian buildings that developed around El Camino and that are testimony to the religious feelings of medieval Europe.
Last year, this recognition extended to the other routes on the north of Spain: Camino Primitivo, Camino Inglés, Camino Portugués and Camino del Norte.
The European Council again in 2004 gave importance to El Camino de Santiago by naming it Great Cultural Itinerary, at the same time it was awarded the Príncipe de Asturias Award because of the platform it represents for people to meet and to help create an European identity.
From 1993 there is a surge in popularity for El Camino de Santiago, coinciding with the declaration of the Camino as a First Cultural Itinerary and the Jacobean or holy year. The region of Galicia prepared in anticipation a program of two years in which they improved the infrastructure, created cultural activities in relation to this and also a marketing campaign to promote the Jacobean route with the name “Xacobeo 93” and its mascot Pelegrin. In this way they captured the interest of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world that started arriving through some of the routes that had been defined.
Already in a moment of expansion, the main part of the pilgrims were either religious pilgrims or adventurers who had, by word of mouth, guides or advised by associations, planned their journeys, sometimes even as they walked.
On October 2015 there was an event called Fairway in Santiago de Compostela, the first Forum of El Camino de Santiago. There were different agents involved such as institutions, associations, pilgrims, shelter managers and other professionals of the tourism industry and culture; they met with the objective of debating, exchanging ideas and looking for professional alliances around the resources moved within El Camino de Santiago and that can be translated in economic and social and cultural development for many people, businesses and institutions.
In a moment in which the cultural tourism is in vogue ( this can be seen in the multiple cultural offers presented to the tourist in Spain), I can give some of the reasons for which I think El Camino de Santiago has become what it is today: people are showing a growing interest in gastronomy, art and the typical cultural content of a particular territory, seen as something authentic and distinctive in a globalised world; also the increased interest in ecology, sustainability and the environment; the need for self-realisation, meditation and the need to disconnect from the everyday life move more and more people every day to find in nature and culture that missing complement; the affordability of travelling options that link great distances; or even the way we live the holidays now ( the short breaks or the fragmentation of the holidays) which allows more trips in any given year.
These reasons and needs have been, and are still being channeled by different public and private entities, turning many infrastructures and natural and cultural resources along El Camino de Santiago into an economic and social engine.
It is for all these reasons that today on shop windows and shelves in the travelling agency where I work you can find now leaflets from different tourism wholesalers offering products and services adapted to every kind of person, so anyone can do it (not just the adventurers like me) and live the experience of a pilgrim adapted to their own needs: groups of friends, senior citizens, people with special needs, etc.
It is exciting to see initiatives such as the Vojo App that help plan and live El camino easily and in a personalised way.
From here I want to encourage you to start your Jacobean route, but also I would like to ask from future pilgrims and those agents involved in promoting El Camino not to trivialise it or exploit it in an unsustainable way by killing its essence. To live El Camino is an experience of respect and discovery irremediably attached to nature and a cultural wealth.
Buen camino a todos!