The case study selected to represent Greece in Cultour+ was that of the Footsteps of St. Paul. In Greece numbers rise to 300,000 visitors to religious sites annually. However, it is difficult to constitute a «route» for religious tourism in Greece, as pilgrimage tends to be focused on specific religious endowments, churches or monasteries and on specific dates, usually around the saint’s namesday. The closest we have to the pilgrimage routes of other European countries, such as that of Santiago de Compostela or the Via Francigena, is the itinerary covered by the Apostle Paul in mid-1st century A.D.
In the course of his travels throughout Asia Minor, Greece and Italy aiming at founding new Christian communities and at converting Jews. This itinerary covers a distance of over 700 kilometers, from the island of Samothrace and the city of Kavala and its nearby archaeological site of Philippoi to the cities of Thessaloniki, Veroia and Athens and then down to ancient Corinth and the port of Kenchreai. It is frequented mainly by foreign visitors, belonging to other Christian denominations, particularly Catholics and Protestants. Trips are organized by tour operators or Christian parishes. It has recently been highlighted by religious and state authorities (Link).
Due to the lacking or deficient infrastructure pilgrimage tours of this sort are often combined with expensive cruises. On the other hand, undertaking the trip on one’s own means is not always so easy, as some of the spots where the Apostle preached are not highlighted or signposted and are thus easy to miss, particularly if one doesn’t speak or read Greek. Such is the case, for example, with Apostle Paul’s preaching point at Apollonia, on the south bank of Lake Volvi, or with the small rock-cave church dedicated to the saint within the Thermal spa of Nea Apollonia, just a few kilometers away.
A notable series of Thermal Springs are situated along the Footsteps of St. Paul, which makes it easy to connect the two types of tourism and offer a holistic approach to the «healing» aspect of a religious pilgrimage. Samothrace offers organized baths at Therma. Very close to Kavala, just next to the archaeological site of Philippoi, are situated the Mudbaths of Krinides within a beautiful natural setting. Close to Paul’s preaching spot at Apollonia are situated the Thermal Springs of Nea Apollonia, situated at a magnificent location, on the south banks of Lake Volvi; they offer a unique potential for combining thermal treatments with other activities such as bird-watching, water sports, biking, hiking etc.
The next thermal spa on the way to Thessaloniki, namely that of Langadas dating to the early 10th century A.D. The baths are surrounded by acres and acres of green land, at an ideal location for family holidays with activities combined with the nearby lake of Langadas (Koroneia).
Farther south, in the Prefecture of Phtiotis, there are abundant thermal centers, such as Platystomo, Ypati, Thermopyles, Psoroneria and Kammena Vourla. The Lake Vouliagmeni, on Attica’s Saronic Gulf shores has a therapeutic potential at a short distance from Athens city center. Finally, as the «Footsteps of St. Paul» reach their final stop, Corinth and Kenchreai, the nearby Thermal Springs of Loutraki offer a unique opportunity for treatment and cultural tours.
Although in a country like Greece it should be easy to trace cultural routes, the preliminary research carried out by Cultour+ team proved that both thermal and religious tourism need a lot of structured study and work in order to move in this Thermal infrastructure along the «Footsteps of St. Paul«, although abundant along the chosen route, presents a very disparate and uneven picture: most thermal spas are run by municipalities which may or may not run it properly. This helps to maintain charges at reasonable or even low levels, but it entails the danger of having infrastructure which is not properly maintained, whereas few steps are taken to open up their services to the European market. Privatized ones, on the other hand, tend to be very expensive and to emphasize the wellness-aspect, thus undermining the medical aspect.
In both kinds of tourism, our team observed that there are many gaps which could be filled with entrepreneurial activity on a short-scale, which could greatly contribute to the viability and sustainability of the sites. Establishing local businesses for gastronomy, tour-guiding, water-sports and other similar activities could target at the visitors’ leisure time. More sophisticated services, like seminars organised within the spas, focusing on well-being, concentration, physical exercise etc could be very successful, provided that one comes into a kind of agreement with the Spas’ management.
Finally a bridge between religious and thermal tourism is feasible in these regions, provided that tour operators are carefully and systematically instructed on how to do this.