BUGARACH, France (Reuters) - Residents of the tiny southern French hamlet of Bugarach, population 194, are up in arms at a rising influx of Doomsday believers convinced it is the only place that will survive judgement day in 2012.
Apocalypse devotees dressed in white are now a familiar sight in this picturesque village, drawn here by various New Age theories including claims that a nearby rocky outcrop, the Pic de Bugarach, harbours an alien technical base.
“These blasted prophets from all over the world have turned our mountain into some sort of UFO garage,” Jean-Pierre Delord, mayor of Bugarach, told Reuters.
“You may think it’s funny, but they’re deadly serious... The end result is that all these fanatics are coming here to hide out,” he said.
The Internet is awash with predictions that the world will come to an end next year, based in part on an interpretation of the ancient Mayan calendar which claims December 21, 2012, marks the end of the current era.
Surrounded in legend for centuries, Bugarach has become a focal point for many Apocalypse believers as rumours have circulated that its mountain contains doors into other worlds, or that extraterrestrials will return here on Judgement day to take refuge at their base.
“The aliens will get here soon, we need to prepare for their arrival,” said 42-year-old Kean, who travelled here from the Netherlands to witness the return of the otherworldly beings.
Dressed in a white tunic symbolising the purity of his quest, he had just finished telling three new arrivals they would be building a bread oven at the settlement, and that those participating would get a 50 percent discount on their stay.
Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in a region once home to the mysterious heretic sect the Cathars before they were driven underground in the 13th century, Bugarach has inspired countless myths, supported by the particular nature of the site.
Locals have dubbed the famous Pic, rising 1,230 metres (4,035 feet) above sea level, an “upside-down mountain” as the top layers of rock are said to be older than the lower layers.
And the abundance of limestone rock and caves in the area has inspired stories of underground caverns and networks of tunnels, perhaps built during the war or even by the Cathars.
From there, it is a small step to the idea that the place could contain a magical underground hiding place or escape route from Armageddon.
Now, with natural disasters such as the earthquake in Japan and hurricanes in the United States adding to a sense of imminent doom, the number of people flocking to Bugarach has risen sharply -- 20,000 visitors since the start of the year, more than double last year’s figures, according to the mayor.
Alerted by the phenomenon, France’s sect watchdog, the Miviludes, said it was placing the village under scrutiny, fearing it could become the site of mass suicides such as those in France, Switzerland and Canada in 1994 and 1997.
In those cases, 74 members of the Order of the Solar Temple, including 11 children, died in a series of apparent collective suicide pacts and murders.
Bugarach’s mayor Delord said there are already some grounds for alarm. Last year one devotee attempted to perform harakiri, the ritual Japanese suicide, with a Samurai sword.
Meanwhile, the head of Miviludes, Georges Fenech says he flew over the area in a helicopter recently and saw six settlements of the U.S.-based Ramtha movement, founded by J.Z. Knight in 1998.
“We don’t want to be paranoid, but we are taking this seriously,” Fenech told Reuters.
At the start of the year, French couple Philippe Meniere and Agnes Jardel, reportedly members of the group, went on the run in South Africa after shooting a policeman, and eventually died themselves in a shootout. Media reports said they had believed for years the world was about to end.
In sleepy Bugarach, 86-year-old Marie-Simone -- whose job it is to decorate the small village church with flowers -- just sighs and shrugs when she hears of the esoteric goings on.
“Apparently it all comes from the Internet. But they should just clear off, they’ll never find any UFOs,” she said, adding that neither she nor the village priest believe a word of it.
Mayor Delord, however, says the influx has brought some benefits to the sleepy community, with hotel bookings on the rise, bringing in extra money for the village.
He remains circumspect about the trend, however.
“Of course, after the end of the world, that source (of funds) may dry up. We’ll have to find something else,” he said.
Writing by Vicky Buffery; Editing by Steve Addison