Veni, vidi, Da Vinci: Travel agencies hail tourist hordes

It’s a tour operator’s gift from heaven—a controversial murder mystery hunt for the Holy Grail that unravels from Paris to England, through some of Europe’s most historic museums and churches.

And after once cashing in on the runaway success of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s book that has sold some 50-million copies and has been translated into 44 languages, travel agencies are again rubbing their hands in glee at this week’s release of the film version.

Already the internet is flooded with hosts of operators offering tours “on the trail of The Da Vinci Code”, some complete with theologians and priests to help decode some of the book’s contentious central premises.

“It may be interesting to follow in the footsteps of Langdon and Sophie,” reads one Japanese brochure from the Nippon Travel Agency, organising trips to Paris and London between April and June.

The brochure refers to the book’s main protagonists—symbologist Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks in the film, and French cryptologist Sophie Neveu, played by Audrey Tautou—who criss-cross the two cities in a bid to solve a centuries-old mystery, which it is claimed the Catholic church has long conspired to keep hidden.

Nippon Travel organised similar trips from November to February, costing some $900 to $2 100, and they drew “robust demand and attracted nearly 500 customers a month”, a company official said.

The company believes “there will be people who will want to visit [places in the story] after seeing the film”, he added.

So convincing and intriguing is the plot, that the book’s central locations, such as the Louvre museum and the Saint Sulpice church in Paris, have already been inundated with hordes of tourists over the past few years.

In Paris at least 30 agencies are offering guided visits to the featured buildings and places, with prices ranging from $37 to $200.

Hotels have also jumped on the bandwagon, with the Chateau de Villette, which stars in both the film and book, offering five-night stays with a dinner at the Ritz for some â,¬4 000.

Paris tourism officials confirmed that the publication of the book in 2003 had already led to a surge in tourists, with a record 26-million visiting the French capital in 2005.

The Louvre, the world’s biggest museum and home to Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious painting, The Mona Lisa, which is central to the plot, saw its number of visitors jump from 6,7 million in 2004 to 7,5-million in 2005.

Cannily, the museum gave unprecedented access to United States director Ron Howard to film inside the building, parts of which date back to the 12th century, which will also no doubt further pique the interest of cinemagoers.

The Saint Sulpice, scene of a murder by an albino Opus Dei monk, also welcomed an extra 20 000 visitors, but has been so besieged by curious onlookers that it was forced to erect a panel inside the church reminding visitors that the book is just a work of fiction.

For its part the Eurostar, which links London to mainland Europe, has also witnessed increasing numbers of passengers, up 15% in 2004.

Curiously enough, 1 000 abandoned copies of the book have also been found on Eurostar trains.

“I am here to see what the book describes, but some things are wrong,” said Danish tourist Kirsten Duul standing outside the Louvre.

“What makes it so interesting is that nobody can say if it is true or not.”

For 31-year-old American tourist Tara Watts, the upcoming worldwide release of the film provided the impetus for her trip with her New York boyfriend Michael Pleasant.

“The coming of the film gave us the kick we needed. When the film comes out masses of tourists will want to make this tour,” she predicted.

And the travel agencies are already lining up to welcome them.—AFP

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