The beauty of Lourdes — How perceptions sometimes do us no favours.

As someone who has worked at the coalface of travel for more than 40 years, one phenomenon that I encountered on a regular basis was that of the over-expectation of clients concerning their resort, cruise or other holiday experience. On many occasions, such over-expectation was clearly the fault of the client themselves; building up an image in their mind’s eye as to what they could expect when they arrived and then being disappointed when the reality didn’t measure up to their expectation of it. I would go so far as to claim that most complaints that travel agents receive even today are due more to over-expectation on the part of customers rather than any shortcoming on the part of the product or service that has been purchased. Like it or not, the hard truth is that many people want to pay as little as possible but expect to enjoy a 5-star experience for their bargain basement price!

Travel agents themselves are not completely blameless in this regard though. Unrealistic expectation can sometimes also be because of overly enthusiastic selling on the part of a travel consultant, eager to convert an enquiry into a sale! The use of too many adjectives or descriptive terms such as ‘amazing’, ‘world-class’, ‘luxurious’, or ‘exclusive’ can also paint a picture that is almost destined to result in disappointment on the part of the consumer. A bit of common sense always goes a long way when it comes to evaluating the relative attributes of something that is being purchased and travel arrangements are no different in that regard. ‘You get what you pay for’ is about as best a piece of advice that I can offer to anyone, as it tends to moderate expectations based on the not unreasonable logic of ‘Well if it’s that good’, why does it cost so little?’

The same experiential phenomenon also occurs in reverse of course when, for one reason or another, people lower their expectations of someplace either because of the negative opinions of others or because of their own false or misguided perceptions and I had a personal experience of this phenomenon only two years ago, on a visit to Lourdes!

I am not a religious type so never saw the appeal of someplace like Lourdes and although I admired other people for their faith, was also more than surprised at the eternal popularity of the place and the fact that some people who didn’t suffer from infirmities or disabilities kept on going back there year after year. I had heard stories about the ‘craic’ that went on in the hotels in Lourdes after the business of the day had been completed but still couldn’t understand the popularity of the place — until I overnighted there two years ago, as part of a four-day itinerary that took in that whole area of southwest France: Pic du Midi, Albi and Toulouse. True, there are aspects of Lourdes that are tacky — the hordes of shops and stalls selling religious iconography — but I suppose that is to be expected. Check out Knock sometime! What caught me off guard though was both the setting (which is stunning) and the non-religious alter-ego of the town. Although I only got to spend 24 hours in Lourdes, I was treated to the somewhat surreal experience of attending some sort of carnival in the upper town that evening that was thronged with thousands of young people drinking beer from the innumerable marquees that had been set up whilst musicians performed ‘House’ or ‘techno-Pop’ music from a large stage at one end of the public park area. The scene was about as far removed from my original preconceived opinion of what Lourdes was all about, as it was possible to get.

I thoroughly enjoyed my brief layover in Lourdes and genuinely wished that I could have stayed on for longer. I will return at some stage — not to pray but to enjoy a beautiful town in a beautiful setting in the foothills of the magnificent Pyrenees!

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