The election of Pope Francis may be a blessing for recession-hit Rome as pilgrims and curious visitors flock to the eternal city to pray and catch a glimpse of the new pontiff.
Since the surprise announcement of Benedict XVI’s resignation, visitors to the Italian capital have provided an unanticipated boost in the low season for tourists, and more may arrive for the new Pope’s inauguration mass next week and Easter celebrations. More than 1 million people are expected to attend the inauguration, Giuseppe Pecoraro, prefect of Rome, said today, according to news agency Ansa.
“We expect a 10 percent additional presence this month,” Giuseppe Roscioli, head of the Rome division of the hoteliers association Federalberghi, said in a phone interview.
The Pope’s election and installment may bring as much as 55 million euros ($71 million) in additional revenue to the capital’s economy in March, Roscioli said. The amount includes hotels, restaurants and museums and may prompt an increase of about 10 percent in temporary hotel hirings at a time when the country’s unemployment rate is at its highest in more than 20 years, he said.
Pope Francis, formerly Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, is the first South American to lead the Catholic Church and the first non-European pontiff in more than 1,200 years. His selection has raised hope in the tourist trade that he will attract foreign tourists and reverse a decline in visitors during the reign of his predecessor, whose final year as pontiff coincided with Italy’s fourth recession since 2001.
The pontiff, a Jesuit who has dedicated himself to issues of poverty, isn’t exactly helping the tourism cause. He urged the clergy and faithful in Argentina not to travel to Rome for the inauguration and instead donate funds to charities to help the poor, according to a letter by the apostolic nuncio in Argentina published on Affari Italiani’s website and sent to the country’s dioceses on the Holy See’s behalf.
“Instead of coming to Rome for the beginning of his pontificate on March 19, he would like them to continue with their much appreciated spiritual closeness, accompanying it with a gesture of charity to the neediest,” the letter said citing the Pope’s request.
Last year tourists brought around 7.3 billion euros to Rome, according to the Lazio tourism authority. The number of tourists visiting Italy in 2012 was little changed from the previous year at almost 77 million, according to a Bank of Italy report released March 11.
“With a pope coming from another continent, it takes more time” for visitors from his home country to organize trips to Rome, and flows of tourists from South America may increase only later this year, said Antonio Gazzellone, who manages tourism for the Rome Municipality.
Francis will meet with Vatican journalists tomorrow and on the following day hold his first angelus, when the pontiff offers a prayer to the faithful from his window over St. Peter’s Square.
“We are probably going to extend our stay in Rome,” to see the Pope’s public appearance, said Marianne Demanzana 36, traveling with a fellow Philippine from Dubai where they both work as accountants. “We have already checked out and hopefully we’ll find another room for the next few days,” she said, adding that she would be happy to pay more if the hotel applies a higher rate for the extra days.
Some room prices more than doubled during the conclave, with increases of from 8 percent in bed-and-breakfast accommodations to 125 percent for some four-star hotels, consumer group Federconsumatori said March 11.
“It appears that behind the inflated prices is the will to speculate” and take unfair advantage of the papal event, the consumer lobby said. The average price for a hotel room March 16 is 164 euros, making Rome the most expensive Italian city, hotel search engine Trivago said in a statement yesterday.
Rossana Incorati, who runs a bed-and-breakfast near St. Peter’s, said she only raised prices by 10 euros as in high season. “Still, those who try to take advantage of the situation are always around the corner,” Incorati said.
While religious tourism is important for Rome, it may not change much because pilgrims’ inclination to spend is limited.
“They tend to stay in religious accommodations, do picnic lunches and may buy the souvenir and the image of the new pope,” Gazzellone said. “They certainly don’t go to Louis Vuitton for shopping.”
Italy’s economy contracted 2.4 percent last year as Prime Minister Mario Monti’s austerity drive to contain the public deficit pushed the country deeper into recession. Gross domestic product may shrink 1.8 percent this year according to Fitch Ratings, which downgraded the nation last week.
A pope coming from “the ends of the earth,” as Francis described himself when he first addressed St. Peter’s crowd after his election on March 13, may give a boost to tourism and “have a positive impact on the rest of the economy at a time this is really needed,” hotel lobby head Roscioli said. “Despite being a world-famous tourist spot by definition, Rome still needs that and the current media coverage is as effective as an expensive 24 hour advertising campaign on all the world media.”