For the Vatican, the decision to select 76-year-old Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as the 266th leader of the Catholic Church under the name Pope Francis was a sacred one. But for secular Rome, it was an eagerly anticipated business decision -- and one that turned out almost exactly as the city had hoped.
Pope Francis blesses people in St. Peter's Square in Rome on March 13, 2013.
Though some of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics were saddened by the shocking Feb. 11 announcement that Benedict XVI would step down, the tourism industry in Rome was ecstatic. Hotel bookings shot up by more than 10 percent (with one travel site even reporting a 60 percent increase in inquires from Germany, Benedict’s homeland) pumping much needed revenue into the city during its traditional low season.
Indeed, some 300,000 pilgrims descended on the Italian capital to bid their farewell to Benedict XVI this week and pay witness to a rare (and some say outdated) ritual that is steeped in centuries-old tradition -- this, despite the fact that many iconic sites in the Eternal City -- including the Sistine Chapel -- are closed.
Some hotels near the Vatican have hiked rates to as much as 1,000 euros ($1274) a night. Others, like the Metropolis Hotel, instituted only modest increases.
"We're booked up, we've had to turn people away!" Metropolis Director Antonio Galati told the AFP. The hotel is situated in a converted 16th century clergy house and offered a “conclave package” for visitors, replete with meals in a former canteen used by Catholic priests for centuries.
Speaking about his preference for the next pope a day before the big announcement, Galati said, “A South American pope would be great. Or a Mexican. In fact, anyone from the Americas.”
Galati, like many others, got his wish.
News that a South American would ascend to the highest post in the Catholic Church was cause for celebration in the Italian capital -- and Roman journalists were never shy about their preference on the matter.
La Repubblica even titled a recent article “We’re Rooting for an American Pope to Bring More Tourists to the Capital,” though the author showed a greater preference for the America of stars and stripes.
It’s hardly a secret that Benedict XVI didn’t turn out to be the superstar pope that John Paul II was, and his likeness did little to boost sales at the numerous souvenir shops on Via della Conciliazione. According to local reports, shop owners made a greater profit on John Paul II paraphernalia after his death than they ever did with the images of Benedict XVI, the first pope in 600 years to voluntarily step down.
There’s widespread optimism that Pope Francis’ likeness will prove to be more profitable, and that the Catholics of Latin America, who represent 40 percent of the religion’s faithful, will come in droves to visit him at his new home.
Giuseppe Roscioli, president of Federalberghi hotel association, told Il Sussidiario that he expected 10 percent more people in Rome for the entire month of March.
“We have an average occupancy rate [at hotels] of around 65 percent, so it will be at about 75 percent now,” he said, adding, “There is still plenty of space available.”
In an interview just before the announcement Wednesday, Roscioli told the paper that what happens next depends entirely on the nationality of the new leader.
“Usually, as always happens in these situations, the faithful from the Pope’s home country arrive, but this depends on the country,” he explained. “If it’s a pope from New Guinea, there will not likely be a large influx. If it is, however, a South American … then maybe the flow would increase, as we’ve seen in past years.”
Roscioli added that the media presence and headlines around the world were invaluable to the city and provided the kind of advertising that would otherwise be impossible to afford.
For tourism-dependant Rome, where the Vatican is arguably the star attraction, the announcement of Pope Francis is only the beginning. Next up is the papal installation, where presidents, prime ministers, religious leaders and thousands of pilgrims will flock to St. Peter’s Square to hear Pope Francis’ first speech.
Nobody knows exactly how many people will descend on Rome, but Mario Vallorosi, the head of the Rome office of the government’s Civil Protection service, said Monday, “If the new pope is Latin American, he will draw huge crowds.”
The tourism buzz is unlikely to end after the formalities unfold. The Catholic Travel Center and other travel agents have noted that prospective visitors are already planning for trips toward the end of 2013 and into the new year.
“We’re already seeing significant interest in people organizing travel for next year to be in Rome to see the new pope because it’s a big deal,” Scott Scherer, owner of Catholic Travel Center, told NBC News. “It’s certainly something that animates the entire Catholic world.”
And, by association, Rome.
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