Responsible tourism on pilgrimage walks

Take ‘er easy there, pilgrim
When you have many thousands of people all walking the same route every year, there are obvious environmental implications, a perfect example being the Inca Trail in Peru that issues a limited number of daily trekking permits, and closes every February for restoration. But the effects of ever increasing numbers of walkers aren’t always so obvious as litter or worn down paving stones.
The more people there are on the trail the more potential there is for conflict (we don’t mean fisticuffs) between genuine religious pilgrims, those just walking for the fun of it, and local people along the route. This can result in a degradation of the spiritual experience for the pilgrim, and a degradation of the cultural heritage that affects everyone, such as the way that historic towns can be overtaken by chain restaurants and souvenir shops.
Ultimately it all boils down to respect, for other walkers whatever their motivation, and for the places you are passing through. You may not be doing the Camino de Santiago for religious reasons, but the person right behind you could well be.

How to be a responsible pilgrim

Always stay on the trail rather than straying onto the verge or ‘off-road’ where you may unwittingly damage fragile ecosystems. If you can walk at a quieter time of year, that will also help to reduce the strain on the environment. Dress appropriately for the trail, and especially for entering churches, temples or other sites of religious significance. And try not to be too noisy around areas where people may be praying, meditating or otherwise trying to get into the pilgrimage mood. Be respectful when taking photos at religious sites – or perhaps just put the camera down, and take some time to appreciate the spiritual atmosphere. Wherever possible try to eat, sleep and shop local to help the economy along the route. If you’re souvenir shopping, try and stick with authentic products of the region rather than mass produced, imported tat. And if you can pick up a little of the local lingo too, that’s always appreciated. When you’re walking all day, sometimes for weeks at a time, no one can blame you if you get ‘caught short’ sometimes. Carrying a loo roll and a plastic shovel with you is a common courtesy. Leaving any kind of litter behind is a big no-no of course. But it’s become something of a ritual when completing the Camino de Santiago for walkers to discard or burn their shoes at Cape Finisterre. This is one Camino tradition that we’d be better off without. Be considerate to other walkers, by stepping aside for anyone moving at a faster pace than you, and politely making others know about your presence if you want to overtake them. Tap water in Spain, England and Japan is perfectly safe to drink, so carrying a reusable water bottle is a great way to reduce your plastic consumption. Find out more in our guide to plastic free holidays. Our guide to responsible tourism on the Camino de Santiago gives some detail on the excellent efforts to make sections of the route more accessible. We offer several tailormade trips that can also ensure you’re in accessible accommodation too.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mario Cales] [Temple tourists: Alper Çugun]