The disappearance of U.S. tourist Denise Thiem has prompted concerns about the safety of the popular Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, which has become a tourism boon to Spain.
MADRID — Like many thousands of people from around the world, Denise Thiem, a U.S. tourist, was inspired by a 2010 movie called “The Way” when she set out three months ago to walk the Camino de Santiago, an ancient Catholic pilgrimage whose popularity has grown significantly in recent years.
On April 5, Easter, she was supposed to start another leg of the 155-mile trek from the northern Spanish town of Astorga to Santiago de Compostela. She had breakfast with an Italian pilgrim and then went to Mass and watched a religious procession with him, before they parted ways around noon.
The previous day, Thiem had emailed a British pilgrim, whom she met earlier along the Camino, to say she would next walk the few miles west to the village of El Ganso.
That was the last anyone has heard of her. Since then, Spain’s national police have given no further details on the search for the woman, whose last known movements were pieced together by a friend, Tina Ascher.
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Her disappearance has set off a search by her family and friends and prompted concerns about the safety of the route, which has become a tourist boon to Spain. Some pilgrims are starting to share previously unreported accounts of threats and harassment along the Camino on social-networking sites.
“It seems kind of scary to see a lot of people now coming out sharing experiences on the Camino that they never told the police,” said Cedric Thiem, her brother.
Denise Thiem, 41, had quit her job last year in Phoenix to travel the world. She started in Asia and arrived in Spain in March. Born in Hong Kong, she “likes traveling and knows how to travel,” her brother said by phone.
In recent years, the Camino has gained fame because of books and movies such as “The Way,” which featured Martin Sheen. After watching the movie, she decided the Camino was “something different and really cool to experience,” her brother said.
The surge in the number of pilgrims is also attributable to high unemployment, particularly in Spain, which has given people time and reasons to combine travel and soul-searching.
In 1984, 423 pilgrims were certified as having completed the Camino to the Cathedral of Santiago, which is the final resting place of St. James. Last year, a record 237,810 pilgrims were certified.
Victorina Alonso, the departing mayor of Astorga, insisted Thiem’s disappearance did not reflect any risk for the thousands of pilgrims who pass through the area, and said it was “an isolated case that could have occurred in any other part of Spain or elsewhere.” She said the number of pilgrims was still rising.
An official from Spain’s national police, who asked not to be identified, said police had not made any link between Thiem’s disappearance and other possible incidents around Astorga.
However, Diego Yoon, president of an association of Korean pilgrims, said some Koreans had recently canceled their Camino travel plans because of safety concerns. He added, “We have some of our pilgrims who are now talking about a bad experience on the Camino, especially women who have been sexually harassed.”
Thiem took a taxi at least once on her journey, because she was struggling with blisters. “As a joke, she even started to name the blisters on her feet,” said Christine Blankenburg-Didner, a German pilgrim whose walk overlapped with Thiem’s trek on three occasions along the Camino, including the morning of April 5.
The U.S. Embassy in Madrid said the FBI was assisting Spanish national police in efforts to find Thiem. Her relatives, friends and volunteers have also organized searches around Astorga, to no avail.
Richard Paili Yien, deputy attorney general for Nevada and a college friend of Thiem’s, traveled from Carson City, Nev., to Astorga as part of the volunteer search efforts.
Even though Thiem had sent an email to the British pilgrim saying she would next travel to a town a few miles west, “There isn’t a whole lot of evidence that she ever left Astorga,” Yien said. During his time in Astorga, he also noted a “more heavy police presence along the Camino.” He added: “I feel safer here than in my hometown.”