With global travel including the Camino de Santiago thrown into turmoil by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw the fewest pilgrims on record (for the period 2004-2020) and an 84.5% decrease from the peak of 2019.
That eye-opening decrease is the most notable detail of the following analysis, which uses pilgrim statistics published by the Pilgrim Office in Santiago. These statistics only include pilgrims who received compostelas in Santiago, so that caveat should be kept in mind when considering the numbers in this article.
At the time of the publication of this post, the statistical report for the entire year of 2020 was not yet available, but reports for each month were available, allowing for compilation of numbers and subsequent analysis.
As the 2021 Holy Year begins, here are three takeaways from the 2020 statistics:
Pilgrim Numbers Decrease by Nearly 85%
Only 53,905 pilgrims received compostelas in 2020, easily the lowest number among the years for which statistics are available (2004-2020). The 2020 figure represents an 84.5% decrease from 2019 (347,578 pilgrims, the most ever), and is 42.6% lower than 2005 (93,924 pilgrims), which had the previous lowest number of pilgrims within the data set.
The busiest month in 2020 by far was August, with 19,812 pilgrims receiving compostelas. In 2019, by contrast, the seven months from April to October all saw at least 30,000 pilgrims receive compostelas. August, the busiest month in 2019, saw 62,814 compostelas issued, more by itself than all of 2020.
Spain Reclaims the Camino
Since the 2010 Holy Year, Spanish pilgrims had declined as a percentage of overall pilgrims every year except 2018, when there was a statistically insignificant rise. By 2019, only 42.1% of pilgrims were Spanish, the lowest on record.
As international tourism virtually collapsed in 2020, however, fewer international visitors embarked on the camino and Spaniards had to look to domestic options for holidays and recreation. The result was that the percentage of Spaniards on the camino in 2020 (68.6%) was the third highest in the last 17 years, trailing only the Holy Years of 2004 (76.2%) and 2010 (69.1%).
Looking just at the statistics after Spain emerged from lockdown following the first wave of the virus (June-December 2020), the percentage of Spanish pilgrims rose even higher to 72.9% of all pilgrims, more than the 2010 Holy Year but still lower than the 2004 Holy Year.
Route Diversification Continues
The Camino Francés is the most popular of all camino routes but this popularity has waned over the years. In the 2004-2019 period, 2005 saw the peak of the Francés’ popularity with 84.5% of all pilgrims choosing the route. As other routes developed, however, the popularity of the Francés decreased over time, including every year from 2013-2019 to a low of 54.7% in 2019.
After the pandemic began, with many albergues closed and a lot of uncertainty surrounding the camino, it may have been expected that pilgrims would seek the familiar comforts and unrivalled infrastructure of the Camino Francés, where more pilgrim services would likely be available.
However, the trend of diversification of camino routes continued as only 53.4% of pilgrims who received compostelas in 2020 travelled on the Camino Francés, a new all-time low. Looking at just the post-pandemic period (June-December), that percentage decreased slightly to 53.2%.
And with two consecutive Holy Years now upon us, pilgrims may continue to seek more off-the-beaten path routes in their search for solitude and beds.
To discover how the pandemic has affected the camino experience, read our account of walking the Portuguese Way in September and October 2020.