For centuries, travelers looking for a path with words have climbed to the top of a medieval castle, leaned back over a hole in the parapet, and kissed a piece of limestone known as the stone name of Blarney.
Said to be (among others) a old altar stone brought back from the Crusades, this legendary rock is one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions. Last year, about half of the 460,000 visitors to Blarney Castle and Gardens kissed the stone. It’s a lot of lips.
All over the world, destinations offering ‘gery’ tourism – statues, stones and other objects that visitors touch or kiss because of a myth, legend, belief or tradition – are confronted with to a particular challenge during COVID-19. Both intriguing and cringe-worthy, the practice could now be viewed as dangerous or irresponsible due to the pandemic. Although few health studies have focused on germline attractions, it is believed that interactions with such sites rarely result in serious illness. But that was before a global pandemic became taboo. Now, these sites are potential high-traffic vectors for the spread of the novel coronavirus from customer to customer through droplets left behind by kisses, hands or exhaling.
How do you convince travelers in the coronavirus era that it is safe to physically interact with an object that thousands of before them have touched or kissed? Germy’s attractions face a tough year for tourism and figuring out how to preserve their cultural heritage while protecting the public from pathogens.
The gift of… germs?
Often considered the most germinated tourist attraction in the world, Blarney Stone reopened at the end of June after closing for the first time in its 600-year history in March. Despite COVID-19, about one in three visitors are still looking for the stone.
“I think we could have expected a little less,” says Paul O’Sullivan, Chateau Marketing Director. “But when talking to people, they were surprised at the efforts we made to make it as safe as possible.”
Blarney Castle has set up many cleaning measuresincluding using an eco-friendly cleaner approved by the World Health Organization to clean the stone after each kiss and spacing visitors one minute apart to allow the cleaner to dry. The staff member supporting the person kissing the stone wears a face shield, mask and gloves, changing gloves after each visitor. The site offers hand sanitizer stations, enforces social distancing, and regularly sanitizes high contact surfaces; contact tracing coordinates are taken upon entry.
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Even before the pandemic, the stone was regularly cleaned with a general disinfectant that would not damage or discolor the limestone, which has been smoothed out by millions of kisses. O’Sullivan says that even before the pandemic, visitors frequently tried to clean the stone themselves with wet wipes and the like, so the castle needed to be more proactive about using lime-free products.
“It’s a lot more rigorous now than it’s ever been,” he adds.
Another famous site for germs is the Gum wall at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where thousands of visitors add pieces of chewing gum to the 8-by-54-foot rubbery mosaic. A tradition since the 1990s, the gum wall has been popular with visitors keen to take the picture iconic and add their own eraser; some even dare to lick the wall. Located in a historic brick building, the gum wall is cleaned regularly, although visitors add more gum after each cleaning.
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“It’s quirky, colorful and full of life,” says Madison Bristol, who works in public relations for the market.
The Gum Wall has remained open since the start of the pandemic, but with few visitors. During the summer, the travelers returned: Recent Instagram photos show visitors posing for photos, blowing gum bubbles and placing gum on the wall. Bristol says they don’t expect the Gum Wall to be as popular this year, but other players in the local tourism industry don’t think future visitors will be deterred either.
“For the most part you don’t touch anything, so I think in the future people are still going to go and check it out,” says Colin Perceful, owner and CEO of Totally Seattle tours. “Travelers always want to live this fantasy. “
During the lockdown, the spot briefly jumped on the digital tourism bandwagon when two local tech entrepreneurs created a Virtual eraser wall to help Seattle’s struggling hospitality industry.
“I still think the actual physical act of visiting and participating in the historic site is difficult to replicate,” says Mark Michael, co-creator of the virtual experience. “The gum wall is emblematic. “
An uncertain future
In some places, notably in Punta Arenas in Chile, where kissing the foot of a statue of a native of Patagonia is believed to prevent seasickness and bring good luck, tourism has yet to resume, leaving health plans and security pending.
“Because we have not received any tourists in our city, it is difficult to know,” says Marta Larravide Villagrán, head of the local section of Chile’s national tourist office, SERNATUR. “Maybe for a while people won’t touch or kiss the toe, but the tradition remains.”
At Hollywood TCL Chinese Theater, where tourists can fill the concrete outlines of their favorite movie stars’ handprints with their own palms, the attraction has been closed since March and plans to safely reopen remain a work in progress.
Others have reopened, but only to the faithful. In May, Vatican workers completely sanitized St. Peter’s Basilica – where the saint’s bronze foot was smoothed into a shapeless mass by centuries of pious kisses and touches – although the church reopened for mass. , not for tourists.
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Even for places that have resumed normal activities, it’s a game of waiting to see what the future holds.
“I think the percentage of people kissing the stone may go down a bit,” O’Sullivan speculates. “[The return of] international travel will be a great determination.
There has been a benefit: The pandemic has temporarily curbed the wave of overtourism in popular destinations, allowing locals to discover their treasures without the crowds.
“It’s amazing how much [Irish] people came here for the first time, ”says O’Sullivan.