23 Sep 2021

Developing international tourism links with Spain

Alex Brannen’s whistle-stop visit to Galicia in northwest Spain is the latest step in an international collaboration to build on strong cultural links between Galicia and Reading and will help Reading UK to develop a tourism project to benefit Reading’s tourism and hospitality sector.

IMG-20210911-WA0008

An 800 year old relationship

Our relationship with Galicia dates back to medieval times when Reading Abbey and its holy relics, including the Hand of St James, was the starting point for religious pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. For the last year, at Reading UK we have been talking and working with tourism colleagues in Spain and pilgrim organisations in the UK to resurrect these historic links and to promote Reading as the departure point for modern pilgrims or people who just like walking. This month, the Spanish Tourist Board and A Coruna Provincial Council funded Reading UK to join a familiarisation trip to understand the context of modern pilgrimage, its benefits to the tourism economy and to explore closer working relationships for mutual benefit.

Visiting Galicia

I joined a group of UK and Ireland destinations with pilgrim links as well as volunteer organisations who promote pilgrim walks in the UK and Ireland and links with Spain. The packed programme showed us how this part of Spain has been fostering a renewed interest in historic pilgrim routes during the last 30 years, which has turned a few hundred pilgrims a year in the 1980s into 350,000 a year by 2019.

20210911_095345The world-famous Camino de Santiago and its 7 routes, including the Camino Ingles (The English Way) is now an international tourism product and brand. We saw how abandoned villages along the Camino Ingles have been brought back to life by this green tourism alone. Camino signage and branding is everywhere you look, a whole accommodation, hospitality and guiding industry has grown up on the back of the routes and lovely towns such as Pontedeume, Betanzos and the city of A Coruna have had new life breathed into them and welcome hundreds of visitors a day during peak season. We believe there is great potential for Reading to associate itself with this powerful tourism brand and to develop its own attraction for walkers and modern-day pilgrims.

Reading's medieval heritage

In medieval times, having made a pilgrimage to Reading to see the Hand of St James the Apostle, devout Christians would then continue to the South coast and across the Bay of Biscay before walking the final 100 km to Santiago to the shrine of St James himself in the city’s Cathedral. The first outcome of our 21st century collaboration, the map guide ‘Reading for Modern Pilgrims’, has been produced with joint funding from Reading UK and A Coruna Council.

Cover-1The guide highlights Reading’s medieval pilgrim heritage, its place on medieval and modern pilgrim routes linking to the historic Camino Ingles in Spain from A Coruna/Ferrol to Santiago de Compostela and its modern-day locations as the departure point for the UK leg of this walk, called the St James’ Way. This 68.5mile long-distance walk / pilgrimage route, which ends at Southampton and forms part of the international Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes, will be fully waymarked along its route over the coming months thanks to the work of the UK-based Confraternity of St James. With them, we will be promoting this walk to modern day pilgrims and lovers of the outdoors.

Reading boasts many pilgrim sites of interest of its own, including Reading Abbey, the medieval point of departure for pilgrimages to Spain and a modern shrine in Caversham. The Reading for Modern Pilgrims project encourages visitors to explore and to spend time in the town before heading off on the St James Way from the departure point of St James’ Church in the Forbury.

Future collaboration for mutual benefit

Working with the Provincial Council of A Coruna and the Association of Councils on the Camino Inglés, as well as learning from other UK destinations on how they have developed tourism benefit from this pilgrimage connection has been inspiring. The delegates from the UK and Ireland on the recent trip saw how the landscapes, architecture, culture and gastronomy of towns and cities including Ferrol, Pontedeume, Betanzos, A Coruña city, Ordes and Santiago de Compostela have created a powerful tourism product. It was fantastic to see the amazing draw that the Camino Ingles (one leg of the Camino de Santiago) has for walkers and pilgrims in Spain.

For Reading, it shows us how we can develop our own tourism offer to the many people who enjoy long-distancing walking, based on the outstanding medieval heritage we have here and the shared history we have with north west Spain, which dates back to the 12th century. We hope the visit and the new Reading for Modern Pilgrims map will be the start of a collaboration with Galicia which will bring benefit to our tourism and hospitality sector and see Reading recognised as part of the international camino pilgrimage brand.

Find out how to walk the Camino from Reading