This is how the Way to Santiago is going to be after the Coronavirus

2020 was going to be a crucial year for the Way to Santiago. Before the next Holy Year, the number of pilgrims should have increased again. It would also have served to begin the preparation for the arrival of the Xacobeo, with important congresses, talks and investments. However, the Jacobean machinery has seen how the coronavirus pressed the red button and stopped production at once. This affects Spain in particular but extends to associations, businesses and public entities throughout Europe. The return of the Way is expected to be very complicated and these are some of its keys.

Plaza del Obradoiro y Catedral de Santiago

Plaza del Obradoiro and Cathedral of Santiago. | Shutterstock

A calm return: “The Way is still there”

The great question that arises to all pilgrims is “When will it be possible to do the Way to Santiago again?” Asking different experts leads to one common conclusion: it is not known. Luis Gutiérrez Perrino, president of the Spanish Federación Española de Asociaciones de Amigos del Camino de Santiago (FEAACS), says that for the moment everything is in the talking stage. This institution collaborates with the Xunta de Galicia, the Xacobeo and the Xacobeo Council. Jorge Martínez-Cava, head of the  Asociación de Amigos de los Caminos de Santiago de Madrid (AACSM) considers autumn to be the earliest date.

However, patience is a global request in associations and local entities. “The Way is still there” or “The Way is not going anywhere” are slogans that Luis and Jorge emphasize. Although the impact contemplated is huge, like the rest of tourism, rush is not an option. So, if you are thinking of doing the Way to Santiago the recommendation that is extracted from the sources consulted is to wait. Gutiérrez Perrino points out that a great alternative is to wait for the Holy Year and take advantage of it.

Martínez-Cava explains that adapting the Way to Santiago is a continuous task that has been interrupted and extended. In addition to the work of cleaning the paths and improving the markers, there is also the work of equipping albergues with sanitary material. Also the work of reinforcing the number of volunteer albergue hosts or accommodation for pilgrims at key locations. As can be seen throughout the article, this is a difficult task that will require a lot of effort. “Working with the pilgrims” as they have always done is the way to assume the challenge for Luis Guitérrez Perrino.

The de-escalating phases and the Way to Santiago

LThe four phases of de-escalate at provincial level set a gradual opening of the tourist sector of which the Way to Santiago will hardly be able to take advantage. The most important point to bear in mind is that interprovincial mobility will only take place in territories that have passed phase 3, the last phase of the plan. Therefore, a necessary condition for even thinking about reopening the Way is that all of Spain has passed phase 3. In the map below you can see what phase each province is in.


Phase map of the Coronavirus as of June 13 2020. Phase 4 is considered the “New Normality”.

Although it could be summarized how each of the phases would affect a hypothetical pilgrim, what has been told by the FEAACS, the AACSM or the Hostel of the Brotherhood of Santo Domingo de la Calzada is conclusive that during none of the phases can be done the Way to Santiago. Jorge Martínez-Cava and Luis Gutiérrez Perrino point out that during these stages the minimum safety conditions for the pilgrimage cannot be provided, not even on internal provincial routes.

On the one hand that the situation of the adequacy of the roads, the work of marking, signposting or cleaning them is usually the result of the work of associations and collaborations with local public entities. On the other hand, as will be discussed below, the opening of the hostels is to be decided. Government requirements will make it difficult for them to open even after de-escalate, so the idea of operating during this period is unlikely. Something especially applicable to those who manage volunteer albergue hosts, who are greatly affected by the lack of provincial mobility.

The problem of Jacobean albergues and lodgings

For many people, the Way to Santiago is a synonym for albergues. However, the situation for this type of Jacobean accommodation is quite negative for the rest of the year. Therefore, alternative accommodations such as inns or hotels could gain ground, in many cases with greater capacity to withstand a prolonged closure.

In the case of albergues, even after the return to relative normality, the need expressed in ministerial guidelines to maintain minimum safety distances will lead to a reduction in the number of vacancies. The minimums set out in these guidelines will allow the larger ones to function normally. Likewise, Luis Gutiérrez Perrino points out that a more specific regulation for the accommodation of pilgrims is expected. However, needs such as creating a Health and Safety Committee may be beyond the capacity of the smaller ones. Jorge Martínez-Cava stresses that the increase in the washing of bedding, the acquisition of non-contact thermometers or the continuous disinfection of the bathrooms are a major challenge.

Inicio del descenso de El Palo

Start of the descent of El Palo. | José Antonio Gil Martínez Flickr)

Fernando Quintero, president of the Asociación de Amigos del Camino de Santiago de, senses a mixture of “fear” and “the power of the Way” that can materialize in opting for hostels and inns. Even if the price increases, it will be the only alternative in many towns whose albergues cannot afford to open this year due to the lack of summer income, as will be seen in the following section. Thus, the traditional hostelry becomes a substitute that increases the budget but makes the pilgrimage possible.

The survival of the association albergues

Jorge Martínez-Cava and Luis Gutiérrez Perrino have a very cautious view of how the Way will be reopened. In it, the use of the albergues is one of the keys. “We do not have to force it, nor do we want to,” says the president of the AACSM. He also clarifies that the ” case study is very broad “. There are association albergues, donation albergues, religious, public and private ones. The Galician government is already preparing economic measures to ensure the proper functioning of their Jacobean hostels. As they depend on the Autonomous Community, their setting up is the most favoured and they should have no problem opening when normality returns.

A very different issue is that of the rest. Martínez-Cava points out that the smaller ones will find it very difficult to comply with government regulations. It will not be easy for the larger ones either. Hygiene measures are expected to be enormous. For example, he says that bedding will have to be washed more frequently and the ministerial guide indicates that bathrooms should be cleaned at least six times a day. This is a difficult workload for the usual teams of one or two volunteer albergue hosts.

Palacio Episcopal de Astorga

The reopening for Martínez-Cava is thus located in a range from October to January. Perrino speaks more about 2021. Andres Manuel Sanchez, the host of the albergue of the Cofradia del Santo in Santo Domingo de la Calzada does not dare to give a clear date either. He foresees that there could be pilgrims walking in July or August. However, he predicts that the absence of the summer season and the impossibility of applying the measures demanded by the government could prolong the closure of many albergues “until the Holy Week” of 2021. His Madrid colleague shares this view, which greatly affects private alternatives. Only opening from September/October to December makes it more profitable to remain closed. It is true that in other cases the option may be permanent closure.

Fernando Quintero, says that the word that prevails is “uncertainty”. In his case, he has been continually a volunteer albergue host, for example in Nájera. However, this year he will retire as such along with many other people with high risk factors. The FEAACS reports that a plan for the French Way is already being considered by the Xacobean Council. In this way, a large albergue would be supported at each main stop, such as Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Burgos, León, Astorga… In total, they intend to have 30 accommodations of this type ready for reopening, thus fortifying the Spanish section of the most popular Jacobean route.

Can the number of pilgrims be controlled?

Controlling the number of active pilgrims is a concern for Martínez-Cava. One solution he proposes, supported by Quintero, is to encourage travellers to go through associations to obtain credentials. The president of the AACSM believes that the value of this document has been devalued when it is sold in points of sale that are far away from the Way to Santiago, such as large stores.

In a situation as exceptional as the one in which the Way to Santiago is involved, the prior information work of associations and similar is important. It is not in vain that they are the ones who prepare the paths and know the state of the routes better. In the case of the Madrid entity, they are already preparing to receive possible pilgrims by buying tablets and “eliminating paper” from the intermediations.


Interior de la actual Credencial del peregrino

Interior of the current Credential. | Oficina del peregrino

Perrino clarifies that, although French Way is a great focus, in the plans of the federation is to diversify. To do this, the role of associations, both within the institution and outside it, is “fundamental”. As a detail, he points out that this year the predictions foresaw that there would be 25,000 more pilgrims than last year, which was already spectacular with more than 347,000. This meant that during “certain times” and in “certain places” the infrastructure was already at its limit.

Fernando Quintero, on the other hand, points out that alternatives with very low affluence, such as the Southern Way through Huelva, may have it easier than the big ones. Having only two pilgrims a day at each stop, it is easy to keep them under control. The problem can occur in the French or the Northern, especially if they are open to foreign walkers. In these cases it is possible that certain stops are saturated. Hence the importance that the credential can earn. However, at the moment everything is unknown.

Making the Way Safely

In this sense the situation will not differ too much from ordinary life. The security measures that have been explained with regard to accommodation are complemented by those of a personal nature. They are indicated by the WHO and the Spanish Ministry of Health and focus on avoiding interpersonal contact as much as possible, especially with strangers. Therefore, Asians will no longer be the only ones to wear masks. Their use is necessary especially when passing through villages, in the albergue or at the end of the stage. Although it can be very annoying when walking, its use also avoids direct contact of nose and mouth with hands.

camino de santiago en grupo

Pilgrims. | Shutterstock

Disposable gloves are another recommended item to use. Another necessary inconvenience. Frequent hand washing or not touching your face and nose is another constant. In any case, self-responsibility remains the most important factor. If you go to an albergue, the guide provided by the Institute for Quality Tourism for these establishments favors that the users themselves have good procedures. For example, putting bedding on themselves, not touching other people’s bunk beds or putting backpacks in bags.

On the route itself, the use of common appliances7, such as fountains, should be avoided as much as possible. Thus, it is best to carry the necessary water for the stage from the beginning, without relying on refilling it or limiting this process as much as possible. Sharing items such as walking sticks or one’s own canteen is not advisable either. Both Perrino and Martínez-Cava agree that as measures evolve, safety is the first priority on the Way.

Reaching your destination on the COVID-19 Way

Internal mobility could be ensured when all provinces have passed the de-escalation, possibly in August. However, the situation for those coming from abroad is currently full of uncertainty. Although attempts are being made to implement measures affecting the entire European Union from Brussels, it is the individual countries that have taken action. Spain has imposed a quarantine on people coming from abroad, which will last for 14 days. In addition, sea and air borders are active. Only health workers, Spanish citizens, residents and workers are allowed to enter.

Comillas en el Camino del Norte

Comillas on the Northern Way. | Shutterstock

It is not clear whether the European idea of using the Schengen area as a common border will succeed or whether agreements between countries will open up individual corridors. Spain and Italy are in the process of opening one, as are the United Kingdom and France. The EACF believes that entry will be very restrictive. This means that it is prudent, until further information is available, to plan but not to book air tickets for Spanish sections of the Camino if you are a foreigner. In addition, there are still requests from some governments, such as Germany and England, for their citizens not to travel to Spain.

The COVID-19 and the Holy Year, an immediate complication

Another highlight of the COVID-19 regarding the Way to Santiago comes in relation to the Holy Year. While the ecclesiastical authorities decide whether or not to extend the Xacobeo one year, until 2022, the great occasion may come with some albergues closed for a year. However, the events were not limited to 2021. Although the organisations involved are still working on it, some key meetings have been postponed.

The main one is the XII International Congress of Jacobean Associations. It was to be held at the end of May in Madrid but has been postponed. Martinez-Cava does not set a definite date for it to be held. It could come next year and the venue could even be moved. In it, the strategy at a European level was going to be fine-tuned with a view to Xacobeo 2021. Now nothing is clear. Gutiérrez Perrino is indeed positive, as he sees the Holy Year as an opportunity to grow.

For its part, the Xunta de Galicia can ensure its services, but this only affects the final stretch of the Way to Santiago. The French, with the plan of 30 large hostels already in place this year, will also be able to withstand the demands of the Holy Year. More uncertainty presents intermediate alternatives such as the Silver Way or the Way of Madrid. Perrino affirms that “it is not going to be a Way like it has been until now”. It is clear that the COVID-19 has made the Apostle Santiago himself tremble.

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