In 2014, the second largest church in the world, the Aparecida do Norte Sanctuary in São Paulo State, received more than 12 million visitors. This is almost double the number of people that visited the Eiffel Tower in 2013, according to figures from the Euromonitor International survey, released last month during WTM Latin America in São Paulo. Recently, some 7.7 million domestic trips were made for reasons of faith, according to estimates by the Ministry of Tourism.
The fact that Brazil has the largest number of Catholics in the world, representing around 12% of the world's Catholic population according to Vatican figures, helps to explain the importance of religious tourism in the country. In numeric terms, there are almost 137 million Catholics in Brazil - almost the entire population of Russia. As well as the Aparecida do Norte Sanctuary, there are many other sites that welcome significant numbers of visitors. Almost 2.5 million pilgrims visited the city of Juazeiro do Norte, in Ceará Sate, in the north-east of Brazil, in 2011.
Around the world, religious heritage sites are important tourist destinations, attracting between 300 - 330 million tourists every year, according to estimates from the UNWTO (World Tourism Organisation). As well as boosting the economy of the localities and countries visited and providing access to new cultures, religious tourism contributes to increased tolerance, respect and mutual understanding through interaction between the visitors and the communities that welcome them.
The choice of a Latin American Pope, Pope Francis, in 2013, also contributed to renewed interest among Catholics in visiting religious places. Such is the case with the Jesuit ruins in Rio Grande do Sul, including São Miguel das Missões, near Argentina - a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the Catholic pontificate. In 2013, Brazil hosted World Youth Day in the presence of the Pope, a mega-event that brought 671,000 tourists together, of which 212,000 were international.
Religious tourism is not merely restricted to Catholics, however. The rise of other faiths has also attracted visitors to other religious places, as is the case with faiths that originated in Africa, such as Candomblé, and Evangelical Christians. According to data from the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), the number of Evangelical Christians has increased over recent years; comprising 42 million people, or 21% of the population in 2010. The WTM Latin America 2015 Trend Report, released by Euromonitor, highlights that although the number of Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Umbanda and Candomblé, is much lower, there has been an increase in their presence among the Brazilian middle class.
The same report projects an increase of 4.4% in the tourism sector in Latin America between 2013 and 2018, higher than the world average for the same period, estimated at just 4%. According to a study in 2013, Latin America registered a total of 84 million arrivals, which represented an increase of 3% in relation to 2012.