LISBON (Reuters) – For businesses dependent on Portugal’s most celebrated place of pilgrimage, Tuesday was supposed to be the busiest day of the year – and then the pandemic intervened.
Every October 13, huge crowds converge on the Fatima shrine to mark the anniversary of the date in 1917 when the third and final vision of the Virgin Mary authenticated by the Catholic Church took place.
But coronavirus-related restrictions meant just 4,500 attended this year’s celebration compared to 100,000 in 2019, and the donations on which the sanctuary depends have all but dried up, said its spokeswoman Carmo Rodeira.
“The sanctuary exists to welcome pilgrims … but the biggest impact is on the way we celebrate faith and this is the biggest challenge that the pandemic has brought to the Church,” she said.
Meanwhile restaurants stand empty in the religious tourism-dependent town and hotel takings are down by up to 90%, according to official data.
“The international guests simply disappeared,” said Alexandre Marto, director of Fatima Hotels, a group of 10 establishments sharing the same booking platform.
“The situation … becomes even more difficult because we don’t know how long it (the COVID curbs) will last,” said Purificacao Reis, president of local business association ACISO.
Around the sanctuary, shopkeepers at most of the dozens of stores selling religious items are all but empty, and even those with customers are struggling.
“The foreigners stopped coming and now it is only the Portuguese, who have little money – just like myself,” said Ana Maria, 60, while standing outside her tiny but packed shop.
Unsure how long she will able to stay in business, she prays for better days.
For some, however, the crisis has created opportunities.
Ana Paula Reis decided to move her restaurant to a less touristy location, allowing her local customers to enjoy her traditional recipes in greater comfort.
“On tourist streets, …hotels are closed, shops are closed. It’s scary,” she said. “The pandemic brought me the chance to grow.”
(This story has been refiled to fix spelling in headline)
(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira; Additional reporting by Pedro Nunes; Editing by Andrei Khalip and John Stonestreet)