The number of people making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain, reached a new high in 2023, according to the local pilgrims’ office.
The figures underline the pilgrimage destination’s spectacular resurgence following the pandemic year of 2020, in which only 54,143 pilgrims were registered.
Pilgrims travel mainly on foot along ancient routes known as the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James. The routes converge on Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the traditional burial place of St. James the Great, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles.
Along the routes, pilgrims collect stamps on a document known as the Credencial del Peregrino, or pilgrim passport. When they arrive in Santiago de Compostela, they visit the pilgrims’ reception office, where they present the document and receive a “Compostela,” or certificate confirming that they have completed the pilgrimage.
Spain accounted for 197,184, or 45%, of the total number of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in 2023. The next-largest contingent came from the U.S., with 32,069 pilgrims, or 7%. The two countries were followed by Italy, Germany, Portugal, France, and the U.K.
Pilgrims came from all the inhabited continents. The Asian country with the most pilgrims was South Korea, with 7,563. The leading African country was South Africa, with 1,562 pilgrims. Twenty countries were each represented by a single pilgrim, including Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Turkmenistan.
The office said that 93% of pilgrims made the journey to Santiago de Compostela on foot, while 5% traveled by bicycle. Others opted for less conventional means of transport, with 606 arriving on horseback and 276 by sailboat (with the last stretch completed on foot).
Almost half of all pilgrims took the French Way to Santiago de Compostela. The next most popular route was the Portuguese Way, followed by the Portuguese Coastal Way, the English Way, and the Primitive Way.
The most popular months to complete the pilgrimage were May and September.
The number of Camino pilgrims has risen steadily over the past three decades, with spikes in years that are designated as Jacobean Holy Years, which occur when the July 25 feast of St. James falls on a Sunday. The last Compostela Holy Year was in 2021–2022 (extended due to the pandemic) and the next will be in 2027.
In the 1990s, the Camino attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims per year, but it began to draw more than 100,000 people regularly after 2006. It passed the 200,000 mark in 2013 and 300,000 in 2017.
The Way of St. James was not the only pilgrimage to attract record numbers in 2023. More people than ever also attended the annual Paris to Chartres Pentecost pilgrimage, which dates back to the 12th century but has undergone a revival since 1983. The pilgrimage, which uses the Traditional Latin Mass, drew an estimated 16,000 pilgrims last year, including 1,400 from outside France.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, in southwestern France, drew more than 3 million visitors in 2023, an increase of 30% on the year before.
Around 4.4 million pilgrims visited the Shrine of Fátima in Portugal between May 1 and Oct. 10, 2023, a significant rise on 2022 but fewer than in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.
The National Geographic magazine predicted in 2021 that pilgrimages could be “the next post-COVID travel trend.”