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Struggling town gets tourism boost from art restoration cock-up

We’ve spent a lot of this year pondering the vexed question of how to sort out the economies of struggling towns. Is it better transport links that they need? Better skills? Tax breaks?

One possibility we’ve never considered is that vandalism-based-tourism might be the answer. And yet, here’s Borja, a little town in Spain whose only distinguishing feature is a fresco of Jesus, which an elderly local of great goodwill but limited skill attempted to restore to greatness. The results attained a measure of notoriety in August 2012, because they looked like this:

Before and after. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

At the time, the artist in question, Cecilia Giménez, was widely mocked for her attempts at restoration. And yet, according to the New York Times:

Grief has turned to gratitude for divine intervention — the blessing of free publicity — that has made Borja, a town of just 5,000, a magnet for thousands of curious tourists eager to see her handiwork, resurrecting the local economy.

(…)

Since the makeover, the image has attracted more than 150,000 tourists from around the world — Japan, Brazil, the United States — to the gothic 16th century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy on a mountain overlooking Borja.

Visitors pay one euro, or about $1.25, to study the fresco, encased on a flaking wall behind a clear, bolted cover worthy of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa.

Let’s think about those figures a moment. The portrait rose to notoreity in late August 2012, so roughly 850 days ago. That means roughly 176 people have been visiting the fresco every day. Assuming the church is open for 10 hours a day, that’s about one every three and a half minutes.

And this, remember, is not in the heart of Seville or Barcelona or some such. This is a church on a hill outside a tiny town a 40 mile drive from the nearest major city. 

The fresco has been such a draw that:

…Nearby vineyards are squabbling over rights to splash the image on their wine labels… A comic opera is in the works in the United States, the story of how a woman ruined a fresco and saved a town.

(…)

In the economic crisis of the last six years, 300 jobs vanished, [the town’s mayor Miguel Arilla] said, but with the tourism boom, restaurants remained stable. Local museums, he added, also benefited. The nearby Museum of Colegiata, housed in a 16th century Renaissance mansion, experienced a rise in annual visits to 70,000 from 7,000 for its religious, medieval art.

So, if you’re looking for ways of livening up the economy of your town, there’s your answer: trash something. Just remember to call a press conference afterwards.
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