Easter, called Holy Week in the Philippines, is a time for family and religious observance in this largely Catholic country, and a fleeting period when Manila’s gridlocked traffic eases as people flee the big city for the countryside.

It’s this trend of “faith tourism” – people travelling specifically to visit holy sites – that has Philippine tourism officials looking to capitalise on the country’s religious monuments.

Earlier this year, the Philippine Department of Tourism announced plans to turn the country into a “faith tourism mecca”. And with work underway to restore many of the Spanish colonial-era churches, the government hopes to promote the country as a religious tourism destination for Catholics overseas.

Tourism in the Philippines has long lagged behind other Southeast Asian countries despite the lure of its tropical climate, archipelago of islands, white-sand beaches and other natural wonders. The country drew 6.7 million tourists in 2017, far fewer than the 35 million that visited Thailand.

“The natural attractions, though unique in many ways, are not sufficiently strong in themselves to attract the numbers required to support a significant tourism sector,” a section on the department’s website reads.

‘Say hello to my little friend’: is there a Hollywood ending to Duterte’s drug war?

The decision to restore churches also comes at a time when some of the country’s most famous beaches have reached the limits of how much tourism they can sustain without permanent damage to ecosystems. The government announced that starting later this month, the island destination of Boracay will be closed for six months to address issues of water contamination by sewage and litter.

But casting the Philippines as a holy destination is a complicated exercise in nation branding. The country nowadays most often makes headlines for President Rodrigo Duterte’s unapologetically bloody war on drugs.

Duterte came to power promising to bring order to the Philippines, by force if necessary. Nearly two years into his presidency, the Philippines is often named alongside countries such as Russia, Turkey and India, as part of a global shift toward authoritarian governments that curb civic and political rights.

Even in this era when brash, outspoken leaders are not uncommon, Duterte manages to stand out for his eye-popping comments. Just this week he called a UN human rights official “empty headed”. He has also claimed to be “happy” about the prospect of slaughtering millions of drug addicts, and has more than once joked about rape.

Not exactly the words of a pious leader. And it is not only Duterte’s words that are controversial. While domestically Duterte is popular for affecting perceived improvements to public safety, extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers have been documented under his watch, and rights groups have accused his administration of stamping out freedom of expression.

Despite this backdrop, officials say their efforts to encourage faith tourism are already bearing fruit. “There was a recorded increase in tourist arrivals in the different destinations during the Holy Week season,” says Rebecca V Labit, director of faith tourism at the government department.

Why left-behind Filipinos back Rodrigo Duterte

“For Intramuros, Manila alone, the walled city as it is known, the site registered an estimated 1,270,792 visitors for Holy Thursday and Good Friday as compared to last year’s 250,000 visitors. The massive increase can be attributed to media support, massive support of the department.”

Also this year, various activities have been organised with the intention of encouraging faith tourism. In various cities, Catholics carried out Senakulo (the Passion Play or Easter pageant), performing dramatisations of the life of Jesus Christ. Group tours, on foot or bicycle, were organised for several churches and p abasa s, a ritualistic reading aloud of a Philippine epic narrative about the life of Christ, were held.

But it is still far from certain whether the government’s efforts will lead to a sustained rise in faith tourism in the Philippines, and whether that will bring a significant economic boost. Since the country is geographically far from Europe and Latin America’s major Catholic countries, the Philippine government has said it will be targeting markets in Asia – particularly South Korea.

“Faith based tourism in the Philippines is largely domestic and diaspora based. It is hard to imagine them attracting many long-haul visitors,” says Dr Michael O’Regan, a senior lecturer at Bournemouth University who has conducted research on tourism to and across Southeast Asia.

Nevertheless, the government has an incentive to put resources toward maintaining and improving religious sites, O’Regan argues.

“Church restoration is important, given the religious make-up of the country, and has strong local support, so it’s not a lost investment,” he says.

Labit, meanwhile, acknowledges the difficulties of making the Philippines a faith tourism hotspot.

“There will always be challenges in terms of infrastructure, human resource development and [putting together] a holistic tour package that will complete the satisfaction of a tourist’s soul, body, mind and spirit.”