The 2021 Holy Year in Santiago de Compostela and on the Camino de Santiago will undoubtedly be greatly affected by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. With the situation changing frequently, it’s impossible to predict 2021 pilgrim numbers with certainty or to know which safety and security measures that impact the camino will be in place. This article discusses Holy Year in general and what the pandemic-affected 2021 Holy Year might look like on the camino.
Update January 2021: Holy Year has been extended to include 2022 as well (article in Spanish). While 2021 won’t see the pilgrim numbers on the camino that were expected before the pandemic hit, 2022 might, given current vaccination projections.
Why is 2021 a Holy Year?
Holy Year in Santiago has occurred since 1122 and takes place when St. James’ feast day, 25 July, falls on a Sunday. Owing to the peculiarities of the Gregorian calendar, this happens in a cycle with 6, 5, 6 and 11 years between Holy Years before this pattern repeats itself. The last Holy Year – aside from 2016, an extraordinary Holy Year declared by Pope Francis – was 2010, so the longest wait in the cycle is about to come to an end.
What Happens During Holy Year?
On 31 December of the previous year, the archbishop of Santiago uses a silver hammer to symbolically strike the Holy Door on the eastern (back) side of the cathedral, facing Praza da Quintana. The door is then opened and during Holy Year, pilgrims enter through the holy door and can earn a plenary indulgence (the remission of sin) by visiting the tomb of St. James inside the cathedral, saying a prayer and going to confession and communion within 15 days either side of the visit to the cathedral.
How Does Holy Year Usually Impact Pilgrim Numbers?
In a word: significantly.
During the last Holy Year in 2010, there was an 87 per cent increase in the number of pilgrims who received a compostela in Santiago (272,135) compared with the year before (145,877), including a 138 per cent increase in Spanish pilgrims. The following year, there was a 33 per cent decrease in pilgrim traffic, but the 2011 total of 183,366 still represented a 26 per cent increase over 2009, showing that the Holy Year spike can have a flow-on effect in future years.
Holy Year numbers typically peak in July as pilgrims try to reach Santiago in time for the saint’s feast day on the 25th. In 2010, 42,466 pilgrims received compostelas in July, just under 30 per cent of those who did so for the entirety of 2009.
Since the last Holy Year, the Camino de Santiago has become even more popular, with the number of compostelas issued increasing every year from 2012-2019. Additionally, each year from 2016-19 saw more pilgrim traffic than the 2010 Holy Year, culminating in a record 347,578 pilgrims receiving compostelas in 2019.
How Will The Coronavirus Pandemic Affect Holy Year?
The above data suggested 2021 would have easily been the biggest year in the history of the Camino de Santiago, until the coronavirus pandemic hit and plunged global travel – among other things – into uncertainty. How the virus will impact pilgrim numbers in 2021 remains to be seen, but the huge disparity in the northern autumn between 2019 and 2020 can serve as some sort of guide. In September 2020, for example – before a second wave of coronavirus-related restrictions were introduced in Spain and Portugal – just 10,441 pilgrims received compostelas in Santiago, a 77 per cent decrease from September 2019.
Additionally, the pandemic is likely to affect Holy Year in other ways. Rules and regulations surrounding the coronavirus can change rapidly, but when I was last on camino in September and October 2020, many albergues were still closed, with only seven of the 25 in Santiago de Compostela itself open for the whole month of September. Those that were operating at reduced capacity (typically half) and with their kitchens closed to ensure social distancing. Masks were mandatory in indoor and outdoor public spaces throughout Spain, although the latter rule tended to be followed only in urban areas and not on rural paths.
In October 2020, Spain declared a new state of emergency and some cities and regions, including ones on the Camino Francés and other camino routes, went into local lockdowns, significantly disrupting the camino. Portugal declared a new state of emergency in November 2020 and introduced curfews. For the 2020 calendar year, pilgrim numbers were down nearly 85% from 2019, according to statistics from the pilgrim office in Santiago.
Other issues to consider for pilgrims who are thinking about walking the camino in 2021 include whether flights could be cancelled due to the pandemic, whether costs associated with being infected by the virus are covered by travel insurance and whether quarantine is mandatory upon returning home.
How Can I Avoid Crowds During Holy Year 2021?
If vaccines for COVID-19 are made widely available in time, there may still be a rush of pilgrims descending on the camino in 2021 and, now, 2022 as Holy Year continues.
The Camino Francés (French Way) is the most famous and popular camino route, accounting for 55 per cent of pilgrims who received compostelas in 2019 and 70 per cent in the last Holy Year of 2010. If you’re set on walking the Camino Francés in 2021, walking out of the May-September high season will give you a quieter camino but the weather will be less reliable.
If walking during colder – and wetter – months doesn’t appeal, the easiest way to fully experience Holy Year 2021 but to avoid crowds is to walk to Santiago on a route other than the Francés. As the second most popular option with 27 per cent of all pilgrims in 2019 on both its central and coastal routes, the Camino Portugués (Portuguese Way) still figures to be quite crowded if pilgrims return in something approaching pre-pandemic numbers. A quieter choice would be the Camino del Norte (Northern Way), Camino Primitivo (Original Way) or the Camino Inglés (English Way), each of which is becoming more and more popular but still accounted for only about five per cent of all pilgrims receiving compostelas in 2019. The Camino Invierno (Winter Way) and the Via Sanabrés are more remote trails that are unlikely to see significant pilgrim numbers even in a Holy Year, especially with the pandemic still hanging over the camino.
Another option for avoiding crowds is to opt for a camino that doesn’t end in Santiago (but ultimately connects to trails that do) such as the Via de la Plata, the Camino Mozárabe or the Camino de Madrid, among many other options. Although by choosing one of these routes and not finishing in Santiago, you would naturally miss out on walking through the cathedral’s holy door and experiencing other Holy Year festivities in the Galician capital.
Regardless of which camino you choose, make sure you keep up-to-date with the latest coronavirus developments and adhere to government rules and guidelines to keep yourself and others around you as safe as possible.
For more about how the coronavirus has affected the Camino de Santiago in Portugal and Spain, read my account of being on pilgrimage during the pandemic.