As Cardinals Choose a New Pope, Romans Hope for a Spike in Business

Tourists in St. Peter's Square, as seen from the roof of the Basilica in Vatican City Photograph by Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

In 2005, during the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the cobblestone streets near St. Peter’s Basilica flowed with the faithful. They had come to pay their respects to a charismatic pontiff who had defined the papacy for a generation. But they also needed to eat. “We were working 24 hours a day, making pizzas as fast as we could,” says Andrea Marotta, 23, who along with his father sells pizzas for €5 ($6.55) each at Pizza Panini San Pietro, a small storefront near the Vatican.

Today, the papacy is vacant once again. At the end of February, Pope Benedict XVI, who as a cardinal picked up parmesan and Coca-Cola at Marotta’s store, resigned, citing health reasons. The 115 cardinals who will choose the next pope have arrived. But not the masses. The last big event at the Vatican, the beatification of John Paul II in 2011, brought in an estimated €190 million in revenue for the city’s hotels and restaurants, another €30 million for public services such as the bus and the subway, and €15 million for its retail outlets, according to a study by the Monza and Brianza Chamber of Commerce.

This year, the city of Rome has said it expects the conclave to attract a few hundred thousand visitors—it has priced the cost of managing the crowds at €4.5 million. Travel website Expedia says the number of trips to Rome booked on its Italian site doubled in the 24 hours after Benedict announced his resignation. But so far, except for some 5,000 journalists who have applied for accreditation to cover the event, and the winter season’s usual sparse showing of tourists, the crowds have yet to materialize. “There should be a bunch of people, but where are they?” says Marotta’s father, Pasquale, 56. “Unfortunately, there’s little work.”

So far the only people feeling the boom of the conclave are the hotels nearest the Vatican. According to the website, demand for housing during the week of March 11 is up 30 percent. “This month, we’re usually empty,” says Viscardo Scialanga, manager of Hotel Sant’Anna, a few hundred meters from St. Peter’s Basilica. “Now it’s one day full, one day nearly full.”

Across the street, however, in a souvenir shop that sells everything from T-shirts to mugs to photos of past popes, the family that runs it has plenty of time to chat. “It’s the crisis,” says Angela Bernardini, 47. The last good periods, she says, were when John Paul II headed the papacy. In Rome’s souvenir shops the most prominently displayed papal items are still those that show images of Joh Paul II. Images of Benedict XVI are rare.

While she has made no preparations for the conclave, Bernardini says her supply chain is ready to produce small posters of the new pope in about an hour, followed quickly by key chains and framed photographs. “We need a good pope,” she says. “We need one who can reach out to the faithful. For us merchants here, it’s also an economic issue. If the next one can unite them both, it would be perfect.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE