Pilgrim city contemplates economic wreckage in wake of train disaster

Tragedy that struck at heart of Galicia is compounded by damage to local economy

Minutes past midnight in the square fronting the flamboyant baroque cathedral in Spain's Santiago de Compostela, a solitary besuited figure looks up. The "field of stars" overhead, after which the Galician city is named, is obscured by yellow-grey bursting clouds.

The gated Obradoiro façade of the cathedral, its extravagant architecture described by one commentator as evincing a “hat-in-the-air exuberance”, is outshone on this night by hundreds of candles placed in front, licking the breeze as though dodging the raindrops.

In the candlelight, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, president of the Galician government, looks at the hundreds of messages, toys and flowers offered in memory of the 79 people who died just 4km away in Spain's worst train crash in 40 years. With his driver waiting discreetly beside a black car in front of the Parador, a state-run hotel on the square, Feijóo is unrecognised by the few tourists around him. He takes in the scene and, looking skywards, appears to be asking how such a disaster could have struck at the heart of Galicia, so close to this monument that celebrates James, an apostle honoured not only locally but who is also the patron saint of Spain.

The crash had happened less than a week previously, on July 24th, and the pilgrim city of Santiago – last stop on the Camino walking route that begins in the French Pyrenees 750km away – was still stunned by the extent of the fatalities. Some 170 people were injured.


Today the Unesco world heritage city, which declared a week of mourning instead of the official three days across Spain, is contemplating an additional kind of wreckage: that of its economy, which suffered doubly due to the timing of the disaster on the eve of its annual festival marking the religious feast of Saint James.

With all concerts, street parties and other events cancelled, the city was eerily subdued during festival week, with far fewer tourists and pilgrims than usual crowding into the main square or frequenting the restaurants and bars.

In place of revelling, there were ceremonies honouring the dead. Black ribbons of mourning were dotted throughout the city. Members of the royal family and politicians who were due to attend the festivities found themselves instead surveying the crash scene at Angrois and participating in mourning the victims.

A Mass held in the cathedral ended poignantly when distraught family members wept uncontrollably as they were consoled by Spain's Prince Felipe, Santiago-born prime minister Mariano Rajoy, and Feijóo.

With such a reduced footfall and the heavy air of restraint hanging over the city, business has been an inevitable casualty. In a gesture of goodwill and solidarity, local hotels had offered free rooms to the families of victims. Now the sector, already suffering the effects of the downturn, is forecasting that bed occupancy for August will fall to 65 per cent, compared to the 80 per cent recorded for the month in the last few years of the recession. And the already low occupancy rate of 68 per cent for all of 2012 will be difficult to attain this year, say hotel owners.

It is a delicate subject given the immediate context. Restaurant and hotel workers prefer to speak generally of la crisis gripping Spain as the cause of their predicament.

However, some in the tourism sector are now questioning the decision to cancel the entire festival. In hindsight, they suggest, the measure may have been excessive. José Manuel Otero, president of the city's hotel body, preferred to pose a question rather than comment on the issue to local daily La Voz de Galicia: "If the accident had happened in Pamplona, would they have cancelled San Fermín [the annual bull-running festival]?"

Morbid twist
In a morbid twist, the downturn in visitors to the city has seen a new tourist attraction spring up nearby: the scene of the crash on Santiago's outskirts at Angrois. The small village has never seen the like of the crowds of curious visitors, initially in their hundreds, stopping on the railway bridge overlooking the site to survey the wreckage.

Data from the black box showed the train derailed at 179km/h in a zone where the limit is 80km/h. The driver, 52-year-old Francisco Garzón, is on bail and has been provisionally charged with 79 counts of reckless homicide.

With three investigations into the crash under way, the boss of Renfe, the national train operator, told a parliamentary committee that the company had begun a safety review. The company has earmarked €2.7 million in compensation for the victims.

Back in Santiago’s medieval streets around the cathedral, as the messages fade and the flowers wilt, many hotel owners are keeping prices down while restaurateurs tout “anti-crisis” menus.

If they were among the crowds who prayed at the cathedral shrine for the victims of Angrois, their entreaties to Saint James over souls and broken bodies will now likely include an additional plea for mercy for a bruised economy.