When Mariette met Mary

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The Virgin Mary appeared eight times to a child in Belgium and the rest is ‘alternative history’

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Thursday 10 May 2018

On the eve of a quiet Sunday in January 1933, the young Mariette Beco saw the faint glow of a woman outside her kitchen window. Smiling, the woman beckoned the child to come out, but Beco’s mother held her back. Beco noted what the woman was wearing a white veil, long white robes with a blue sash, a golden rose on her right foot, and a rosary with a golden chain and cross hanging on her right arm. Three days later, the woman in white reappeared and told Beco that she was ‘Our Lady of the Poor’. Altogether, the woman appeared eight times to the girl. Word quickly spread of the visions and an episcopal commission from Rome was called in to investigate the claims. It was not until May 1942 that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Liege acknowledged the veneration of Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Poor. Approval by the Holy See had to wait until after the war, coming in 1947 with a final declaration in 1949.

“I was no more than a postman who delivers the mail,” remarked Mariette Beco dryly after decades of silence about the apparition of the Virgin Mary which she saw more than 70 years earlier. “Once this has been done, the postman is of no importance any more.”

The child’s sightings put the small village of Banneux (Sprimont, Belgium) on the religious map. But it came at a price for the newly dubbed Our Lady of Banneux, who suffered taunts and derision, even reportedly from members of her own family.

Today, Banneux is a recognised pilgrimage site for Catholics in Belgium, joining the village of Beauraing, where apparitions of the Blessed Virgin were recorded the year before Beco’s own. These sites are sometimes overshadowed by better-known Marian holy sites elsewhere in Europe including Our Lady of Lourdes and La Salette in France, Our Lady of Fátima and Sameiro in Portugal, and many sites in Spain like Our Lady of Sorrows in La Codosero and Umbe, Our Lady of Graces in La Puebla del Río, and many more dotted around the continent.

With international tourist arrivals on the rise, the World Tourism Organisation — a UN body — estimates that 35% of European travellers are interested in religious tourism. Out of every four short breaks, religion and spirituality are the main reasons for at least one trip.

Pilgrims to Banneux day trip in from Belgium and nearby France, Germany and the Netherlands, or stay for longer in one of the hotels which sit alongside facilities that sprang up to cater for visitors to the holy site, which has grown to include a seminary, hospital, mission, information centre, and several indoor and outdoor chapels.

In one of the eight reported apparitions, Mary guided Beco to a nearby spring now on the site and urged her to plunge her hands into the healing waters which were “reserved for all nations … to relieve the sick”.

Fresh memories of the war

For those inclined to analyse past events for meaning or ‘alternative’ historical explanations, the timing and location of the sightings is not without interest. First is the location of Banneux just across the border from what was becoming an increasingly impoverished and restless Germany, while memories of World War I were probably still fresh. Then the timing; the girl’s sightings in 1933 were the same year the Nazi government came to power.

“While it cannot be claimed that eleven-year-old Mariette was aware of the ramifications of the political situation, she grew up in a culture where there would have been intense concern about the international situation,” notes Chris Maunder in his book Our Lady of the Nations: Apparitions of Mary in 20th-Century Catholic Europe.

“The Virgin Mary was believed by devotees to have created a shrine ‘for all nations’ that would outlast the war and mark her healing properties for decades to come,” he explains.

Today, the site is dotted with mini-shrines or chapels erected by Christian communities from all over the world. One shrine immortalises ‘Our Lady of the Poor’ or ‘Queen of Nations’, as Mary came to be known in Banneux, complete with a life-like statue of her bent over in prayer or contemplation before a cross and the simple words, “I thirst”.

The connection to the healing waters of Banneux is not lost. The small spring yields about 7-8,000 litres of water a day with many reports of miraculous healings throughout its existence. Religious souvenir shops lining the out-sized car and coach park sell the water by the gallon. Day-trippers head straight to the line of taps, some content with a sip and a dip, others to fill drums of it for later use.

“Believe in me and I will believe in you”
But for the young Beco, the strain of her apparitions took something of a toll. Reportedly not a regular church-goer, the events of 1933 changed her life and that of her family. As Maunder explains, “There is a long-held Catholic belief that Mary appears to people who have no particular predisposition to visions nor merit them.”

Beco maintained that Mary called her to believe but this faith must have been put to the test throughout the woman’s adult life. She suffered the loss of two children and divorce, according to Maunder: “Beco’s traumatic adult life is popularly regarded as another good example of the way in which quite ordinary people appear to be chosen by the Virgin Mary.”

To the plain-speaking Beco — who died at the age of 90 after having spent most of her life in the Banneux area, and even ran a pilgrim hotel for many years — all these theories would probably struggle to conjure up much interest in a time of rising religious scepticism.

 

 

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Foreign tourists vote to thump Trump’s America

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

Left without a say in the election of Donald Trump, a new breed of conscientious objectors are making their mark on the USA. Foreign tourists are voting with their feet and going elsewhere.

Trump Tower, located in New York, which has also hit by the Trump slump in tourist arrivals.
Image: Wikipedia

Thursday 12 October 2017

Bad news is usually, well, bad news for tourism, especially if it stretches out over months and even years. Holidaymakers are skittish about things like terrorists taking pot shots at them on a beach, while many others let their conscience speak for them when they choose a destination.

The latest victim of this form of conscientious objection is the United States. Reports of international tourism arrival figures there tell no lies. Experts at Tourism Economics predicted earlier in the year that the USA could expect 6.3 million fewer visitors this year. That’s an 8.2%, or €8.5 billion, slump on 2016. New York alone was predicted to lose up 250,000 tourists in 2017.

Arrival figures for the first quarter alone showed a sharp decline of tourists from such countries as Switzerland (-28%) and Belgium (-20%), where I live. Theories and even catchy names abound for this, but what they all agree on is that the divisiveness of the Trump presidency is by no means solely a domestic socio-political phenomenon. It casts a worldwide shadow. The headlines that probably cover it best are the ‘Trump slump’ or ‘Trump dump’, which come with their own memes, images and even apps. But my personal preference would be the ‘Trump thump’ as the impact is far more than a slap to the world’s face.

Global citizens, those who observe developments at home and abroad but were unable to vote for the so-called leader of the free world, have found another way to vote… with their feet. With total tourist arrivals currently down by 10% on last year, the rest of the world is saying ‘no’ to Trump antics, ‘no’ to global bullying, ‘no’ to social division.

The dip in US tourism is not part of a global downward trend. Destinations worldwide welcomed nearly 600 million international tourists in the first six months of 2017. That’s around 36 million more than in the same period last year, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), making the January-June figures the strongest half-year performance since 2010. Growth was strongest in the Middle East (+9%), Europe (+8%) and Africa (+8%), followed by Asia and the Pacific (+6%).

The first half of 2017 shows healthy growth in an increasingly dynamic and resilient tourism market, including a strong recovery in some of the destinations impacted by security challenges last year,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai. In his statement, he went on to talk about “tourism-phobia” and local protests against the summer “invasion of tourists” in the likes of Barcelona and Venice.

This is something the Big Apple didn’t have to deal with this year. And New Yorkers can probably look forward to an equally quiet Thanksgiving and Christmas, unless their president pockets his smartphone once and for all, and his die-hard enabler and the executive finally clue up to the further harm he can do to the States, and other regions.  

To anyone who would listen in the days and weeks after Donald Trump’s election, I made no secret of my views of a country that elects a demagogue to the highest office. ‘There is no way in hell I would set foot in the USA now,” I’d say, partially for entertainment purposes but genuine in intent. Friends would scoff as they jetted off to their Atlanta meeting or Las Vegas team-building. I was beginning to think I was the only one who cared. How else can you make a statement, when you’re not consulted on the running of the world?

To go or not to go?

If the Trump government can block entry to the nationals of myriad countries, in the twisted logic that ‘everyone wants to be in the USA’, then the only way to respond is to say ‘I don’t want to be there’ – a good old-fashioned boycott like that of the Iranian Oscar-nominated film director Asghar Farhadi who wanted no special treatment faced with Trump’s visa ban or the NHL stars refusing to visit the White House. And it seems now that many more, millions more, agree with the director of The Salesman, which took home the Oscar for best foreign film, and footballer Stephen Curry’s decision.

‘Guilt-edged tourism’ like this, where people are motivated by more than sun, sand and sea, is not typically applied to developed western countries. It tends to work more for the likes of China, Myanmar and North Korea, where the choice whether to go or not to go is weighted by arguments for and against the regime. Do you support the economy and encourage more open policies through engagement with regular folk, like tourists from Belgium, or does that merely prop up dictators in desperate need of the hard currency would-be tourists bring? It’s a tough one … usually.

But in this case, the ‘guilt’ is blunted by the fact that ordinary Americans, showing signs of easing out of the economic doldrums, are not likely to be directly hurt by any decision to stay away, to spend hard-earned savings somewhere else. This is probably more than you could say for North Koreans under the (seemingly necessary) additional economic sanctions now in place. No, the net effect is more symbolic, until enough right-minded people express their displeasure with the bully presidency before something really bad happens, some bad news that no one can spin or undo.

The travel sector is typically robust enough to bounce back when the source of the pain or the ‘bad news’ stops coming in. It can take some time – the full term of a presidency, for example – or it can go much faster; as fast at it takes to Tweet ‘we’re not necessarily seeking regime change’.

We’ll see. But in the meantime, keep voting with your feet, say ‘No!’ to tourism in America. Come to Belgium instead.

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Robert Mugabe and ethical tourism

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Was Robert Mugabe’s appointment as UN ‘tourism ambassador’ an unforgivable travesty or can ‘guilt-edged tourism’ trigger reform in dictatorships?

Thursday 7 June 2012

Despite no formal title being bestowed upon the controversial ‘dear leader’ of Zimbabwe, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said the association with Robert Mugabe in the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) was “outrageous” and symbolised “what is wrong with the UN”.

So, how did this farce come about? The story goes that UNWTO’s Secretary-General Taleb Rifai recently met the ageing Mugabe, along with Zambia’s President Michael Sata, at Victoria Falls on the country’s shared border.

According to a story in the UK daily,  The Telegraph, the three signed an agreement that UNWTO’s 20th General Assembly would be hosted there in 2013. Both presidents were then invited to “join hands with other world leaders and add [their] voice to our effort to position travel and tourism higher on the global agenda”. Rifai reportedly praised Zimbabwe for its hospitality. “By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination,” he said.

But criticism has poured in from around the world about the UN’s poor judgement, not only in this case, but in several other high-profile decisions in recent months. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the US House Foreign Affairs chair, went as far as to accuse the UN of “propping up dictators“, but that it had hit a “new low” naming Mugabe as a tourism envoy.

“[As] if North Korea chairing the Conference of Disarmament and Cuba serving as vice-president of the Human Rights Council had not been enough,” she is quoted as saying. “The continued rewards the UN bestows upon the world’s dictators has reached the point of absurdity. An organisation devoted to world peace and stability is propping up and aiding the very regimes that oppose such ideals.”

In its defence…

The World Tourism Organisation is a relative newcomer to the United Nations table and is perhaps showing its inexperience. And it is not even the only international tourism organisation on the block, with the World Travel and Tourism Council also exerting significant influence in the sector – which may grow if  UNWTO continues to bungle international relations on this level.

The UN describes its association with the WTO, a “specialised agency”, as a global forum for tourism policy issues and a practical source of tourism know-how. “UNWTO plays a central and decisive role in promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism, paying particular attention to the interests of developing countries … [It] encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, with a view to ensuring that member countries, tourist destinations and businesses maximise the positive economic, social and cultural effects of tourism and fully reap its benefits, while minimising its negative social and environmental impacts.”

Even a cursory glance at this manifesto reveals a few major missteps in cozying up with Mugabe, despite his country clearly qualifying for much-needed economic development. Under Mugabe’s three decades of rule, Zimbabwe’s economy has deteriorated from a mini-powerhouse of southern Africa to a spluttering basket-case. Crony politics has all but destroyed the country’s once robust and well developed agricultural sector. Combined with a decade of hyperinflation, low growth, massive debt, decrepit public services and knowledge flight, as the skilled and educated seek opportunities elsewhere, and you have a potent compote for a failed state.

According to the African Economic Development Institute (AEDI), President Mugabe’s Land Acquisition Act of 2000, which led to a massive redistribution of arable lands from thousands of experienced white farmers to less experienced black farmers, set the scene for economic failure. The plan was reportedly supported by Kofi Annan, then the UN Secretary-General, who said at the time, “The equitable distribution of productive capital, such as land, is not only economically important, but also essential to ensure peace and stability.”

The AEDI explained in a 2009 report on ‘The failing economy of Zimbabwe’ that Zimbabwe’s Land Acquisition Act had amplified a serious food shortage crisis. “If Zimbabwe cannot provide itself the basic elements of survival, such as clean water and food, there is very little prospect of any economic development,” it concluded.

So, Zimbabwe was in terrible shape in 2009, but what about 2012? There are some positive signs, at least when it comes to the economy. According to Africa News, Zimbabwe‘s economic outlook is bright. “The establishment of a government of national Unity (GNU) in February 2009 and the adoption of a multi-currency regime brought about economic recovery and price stability, and strong recovery will continue this year.”

Agricultural output, it reported, rose 15% in 2009 and 34% in 2010, largely from increased tobacco production. However, growth in manufacturing output slowed down to less than 3% in 2010 compared with 10% in 2009. This year, farm output is expected to increase as more land was put under tillage last year.

Guilt-edged tourism

The pariah state of Myanmar springs to mind as a similar international relations debate to that facing Zimbabwe now: do you prop open the door of a dictator by maintaining dialogue, or in the case of tourism encourage visitors to go there, or do you nail it closed, thus blocking any chance of light or change getting in?

This ‘guilt-edged tourism’ debate (read about it in my book Tourism and the media), has swirled mostly over the skies of Cuba and Myanmar, with the jury perhaps still out on both. But there are signs that greater openness and exposure to tourists and (it should be said) their dollars, euros, yens and yuans, at least opens the door to these notoriously tricky leaderships.

Could the same be said of Zimbabwe? Has the UNWTO acted in the spirit of its doctrine of “promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism” or has it overstepped its mark, or just plain lost its way in a misguided attempt to sew up the world’s tourism patchwork?

In my humble opinion, the door needs to be open just enough to nourish any grassroots democratic and economic seeds worth reviving. Zimbabwe is clearly showing some signs of improvement since the GNU entered power in 2009, with opposition figure Morgan Tsangeri as prime minister. But there is too much bad blood – both internal and with the international community – with Mugabe still on the political scene.

The ageing leader will clearly jump on any warming in international relations at this stage of his career. At 88, he will be looking at legacies. Forgotten is his earlier role as the statesman who steered the country out of colonial rule. Remembered will be his role in the country’s economic decline and political repression, and perhaps even his newly bestowed title of tourism “ambassador” with a small ‘a’. Another dictator addicted to power goes from hero to zero.

 

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