SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic –– The oldest cathedral in the Americas sits just off a busy plaza in this Caribbean city’s colonial district.

However, it’s the nearby bronze Christopher Columbus statue, 20111104cnsbr07467Bolivian indigenous people of the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory march toward La Paz Oct. 18 in the last leg of a walk of more than 300 miles. Latin America’s indigenous peoples, often backed by church officials, are demanding the right to have a say in decisions affecting their lands. (CNS photo/David Mercado, Reuters)Hard Rock Cafe and cigar shops that draw the lines of tourists in the plaza.

“We came to see the colonial area. The churches are a nice part of that. But they’re not the reason we came,” said Maria Torres, who perused the shops that ring the plaza after snapping a photo of the statue.

A lifelong Catholic, Torres, who was visiting from Spain, asked, “The oldest in the Americas? I had no idea.”

Catholic leaders here want to get the word out about the area’s significance. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo told Catholic News Service it is trying to bring attention to the area as a key site for 500 years of religious history.

Working with tourism officials, the archdiocese developed “religious route” itineraries, taking tourists past 16 churches, convents, monasteries and hospitals that were the foundation of the development of Santo Domingo, the first city in the New World.

In August, it opened a museum dedicated to the area’s religious history, culminating a years-long effort by Cardinal Nicolas Lopez Rodriguez of Santo Domingo. The museum’s opening coincided with the end of the 500-year anniversary of the founding of the diocese, it said.

Throughout Latin America, Catholic leaders and tourism officials are working to bring more attention to their religious places and events. More than five centuries since Columbus landed in the Caribbean and Catholicism began to spread through the hemisphere, the region is gaining recognition from international tourists.

“As a destination for faith-based tourism, we’re seeing Latin America receive more attention than it has in the past,” said Kevin Wright, director of growth markets at NTA, a Kentucky-based travel association. Years ago, Latin America was barely on the radar, but in what Wright called the “new era” of faith-based tourism, the region appeals to younger and more adventurous travelers. 

“It offers a diversity of experiences,” he said. “It’s an emerging market.”

The faith-based travel portion of the tourism market is worth an estimated $18 billion a year around the globe. The most popular destinations for Catholic pilgrimages remain, by far, the Holy Land and Europe.20111205cnsbr07855Lights illuminate the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor in 2010 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The cathedral is the oldest in the Americas, with construction beginning in 1514 and completed in 1540. It is one of many significant Catholic sights scattered throughout Latin America. (CNS photo/Eduardo Munoz, Reuters)

Although they receive far less attention than traditional destinations, significant Catholic sights — such as the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor in Santo Domingo — are scattered throughout Latin America. They range from Mexico’s Basilica of Our Lady Guadalupe, considered one of the holiest places in the Americas, to breathtaking churches tucked into Andean valleys. Even the iconic symbol of Brazil’s most celebrated city, Rio de Janeiro, is a Catholic monument: Christ the Redeemer, towering over the city below, was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.

Within the region, religious travel has long been an important cultural event. Holy Week, marked in many countries by elaborate, somber processions, remains the busiest travel week for most countries in the region. The Guatemalan colonial city Antigua – population 45,000 – sees about 300,000 visitors that week.

Other places, such as Las Lajas Sanctuary, a nearly 300-foot tall basilica built into a ravine in southern Colombia, attract visitors year-round; many pilgrims to Las Lajas cross the border from Ecuador on pilgrimage.

Las Lajas became the poster child of the Colombian government’s effort to attract more religious tourists when it launched a “Roads of Faith” promotional campaign last year.

The campaign, which highlights events and places throughout the South American country, was aimed at drawing tourists from Spain, Italy and Latin American countries, said Ivan Mauricio Florez of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism.

The importance of promoting the destinations to tourists from around the world was highlighted in a message from the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers.

“It must be an objective priority of our pastoral care of tourism to show the true meaning of this cultural heritage, born from faith and for the glory of God,” said the 2011 World Tourism Day message. “We cannot allow ourselves to view the tourist visit as simply a step in pre-evangelization but, on the contrary, we must see it as a platform to realize the clear and explicit announcement of Jesus Christ.”

A pilgrimage to a holy site can be a powerful experience, said Father Robert Higgins of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., who will serve as spiritual director for a five-day pilgrimage to Mexico City this month.

“Mass is Mass, and that doesn’t change from place to place. But when you’re saying it at the site of a holy ground, a holy place, it gives the sense of connection leading back 2,000 years,” said Father Higgins, who has made several pilgrimages and visited Mexico more than 100 times. The experience can “bring your core, spirit and life into focus.”

The Guadalupe basilica, which the group will visit, is considered among the most holy places in the Western Hemisphere and has drawn visits from dignitaries such as U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The Virgin Mary appeared to St. Juan Diego at the site in 1531.

The basilica is one of the most-visited Catholic holy places in the Americas, but Father Higgins said there is still a sense of simplicity in Latin American holy places that is not found in Europe.

“You still find beautiful structures with all the gold and marble, but in Latin America it’s in a more muted fashion,” he said. “There is a level of simplicity and humility you find there.”