tourists… visitors… pilgrims… worshippers… does it matter?

In a recent article in The Independent, Joan Smith stated emphatically that ‘most of us never set foot in any of [the Church of England’s] buildings except as tourists’…

is this true?

and even if it true, do we consider ourselves tourists / visitors / church crawlers / local people?

and whether we do, or we don’t, is visiting as a ‘tourist’ a bad thing?

This is a complicated question (and I speak as one of the first paid church tourism officers in the country).

To many people, the the term ‘tourist’ implies two weeks on a beach or exploring some far flung place. Few of us call ourselves ‘tourists’ when visiting a nearby city for the day or popping into a building we don’t normally frequent. The World Tourism Organization defines tourists as people “traveling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes” – so both the above examples count… we just don’t use the term but should we?

‘Tourism’ also implies a degree of commercialisation, bringing the ‘visitor pound’ into an area or attraction, while many churches see welcoming visitors as part of their mission to the community (whether that community is local people or like-minded individuals from further afield). But, at a time when many churches are in desperate need of financial support, with congregations responsible for the upkeep of hugely important parts of our nation’s heritage – should churches be thinking more like attractions?

Recent research released by VisitBritain (the tourism marketing body for Britain to international visitors) has revealed that in 2011, 6.7 million international tourists visited a religious building and those whose visit included this activity spent nearly £5bn during their stay. This is a huge pot of money that churches should be receiving their share of, shouldn’t they?

It is true that many people will first set foot in a church as a visitor, whether to look at the architecture, attend an event,  visit a church cafe or for many other reasons. But isn’t that how most of us first enter any building / community / or space?

Many funding bodies (including English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund) now require that the heritage they help save is open and accessible to local people and visitors. Surely this is only right and correct, when public money is being used?

The encouragement of church tourism has seen major benefits in many areas across the country, whether at:

– individual churches like Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon (Shakespeare’s Church) where visitors are welcomed into the building freely, but are charged a nominal amount to visit the bard’s grave

– groups of churches like in South Yorkshire, where the Heritage Inspired project was a finalist in the Best Tourism Experience catergory of the White Rose Awards two years running and where visitor numbers increased from around 20,000 to over 75,000 over 5 years with central coordination of marketing

– redundant churches now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust which need to find a place and a use in the community within which they sit and whose team and churches generate over £15m of business in local communities, using core funding of just £4.6million.

500+ people enjoying winter walking, mulled wine and carol singing at Roche Abbey, nr Rotherham, Yorkshire

500+ people enjoying winter walking, mulled wine and carol singing at Roche Abbey, nr Rotherham, Yorkshire

I visit different churches nearly every week. For work, to enjoy the architecture, for coffee mornings and for a whole host of other reasons.I even go as a fully paid up ‘tourist’ – visiting Westminster Abbey for the annual Carol Concert before Christmas.

In my experience, even when people do enter churches as ‘tourists’ they very often engage with the spiritual soul of the building – perhaps by lighting a candle or enjoying a moment of peaceful reflection – and there are many stories from around the country where people visit their local church for an event and receive such a wonderfully warm welcome that they return… perhaps to a service, perhaps to volunteer, or perhaps to donate to a cause. Latest  figures show that at least 1,116,100 attend weekly services at Church of England churches – so clearly they are well used on Sundays.

But, I’ll leave the last word to someone with a great deal of passion for his churches…

As part of his keynote address to the Churches Tourism Association Convention in November, Bishop Colin Fletcher said:

“I take issue with Joan Smith’s disparaging comment that most people only enter church buildings as tourists.  This simply is not true in my part of the world.  As Christmas approaches well over 50% of the population of many villages will be at a service or event sometime over the next 6 weeks but even if people do come just as tourists the challenge is to make the building come alive.”

You can read Joan Smith’s original article here:

What do you think?

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