Vatican City plays Italian hero

The current pontiff of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, has gone about major reforms in the structure of the Rome-based organisation. With Italy submerged in a seven-year recession, his ability to boost revenues is crucial.
Pope Francis greets the crowd during his audience to Vatican employees. Andreas Solaro / AFP
Pope Francis greets the crowd during his audience to Vatican employees. Andreas Solaro / AFP
ROME // "They will poison him, it wouldn't be the first time, I'm surprised no one has killed him yet," says Gabriele driving his taxi up and down Rome's hills on a sunny winter's day in the Italian capital.

In the eternal city it is difficult to find a taxi driver who will not try to convince you that Pope Francis will die shortly and his revolution will soon be stopped. A dark scenario, Dan Brown style, is hardly surprising for anyone accustomed to the plots, the secrets and the scandals that feature in the millennial history of the Catholic Church - and more recent times. The pontiff has reportedly become the target of a wide range of groups from mobsters to ISIL to rich Catholics all the while shunning efforts by his security team to keep him a safe distance from the faithful.

Yet the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, or Pope Francis, elected in March last year, is so popular that crisis-stricken Italy is benefiting from a man who, at the age of 78, is trying to change the Holy See - something deemed impossible until his appointment. Pilgrims are pouring in, tourism is soaring and nobody in Rome, a city often prone to a defeatist attitude, can say anymore that things in the church cannot change.

One of the unique features of Rome is that it is the only capital of two states. The smallest, Vatican City, is the spiritual home to the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, with an area of less than a square mile and is also the most powerful and influential. And now seems to be also the most attractive.

"Data on pilgrims' provenance and frequency state that the circulation is growing," the Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said a few months ago. The numbers are clear: a recent study made by Coldiretti, a Catholic association of peasant proprietors, has proved what was already widely expected, that 2014 will be a record year for religious tourists visiting the 30,000 churches and sanctuaries Italy boasts.

This year, turnover from this sector should reach ?5 billion (Dh22.38bn) thanks to the "Bergoglio effect", according to the Coldiretti study, which is based upon UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) data. The bilateral local tourism authority, Ebtl, confirms this trend, although, says Vilma Stefanini, the president of the small Pilgrimages of Faith Association, "It's very difficult to have realistic figures because many pilgrims travel independently or through their parishes avoiding official networks."

A few hours before his organisation releases new positive figures on tourism in the Italian capital, Giuseppe Roscioli, the president of Federalberghi Roma, the local association of hoteliers, says: "In 2014 Rome hotels have seen a 4 per cent growth in terms of guests, but the figure should be higher because of the Bergoglio effect. "Data don't show it entirely because there has been also an increase in the number of informal structures such as bed and breakfasts and private rooms."

In addition, Vatican official figures do not give the whole picture: this year 1.2 million tickets have been sold for the Pope's St Peter's square Wednesday audiences, now accessible for free, down from 1.5m last year.

But the previous pontiff, Benedict XVI, in his first year of papacy, sold almost half the number of the tickets (810,000).

The Coldiretti study also shows that globally there are between 300 million and 330 million religious travellers annually, resulting in a total turnover of ?13bn - and a tremendous opportunity for Italy. A boost for the Eternal city, whose public image is in tatters after a huge investigation, called "Mafia capital", unveiled a web of collusion between a mafia-like gang and local politicians so deep it is shocking even by Italian standards. In Transparency International's Corruption Index 2014, Italy is ranked the most corrupt country in Europe - and the survey was carried out before the news of the Mafia capital investigation broke. According to a recent study by Confindustria, the Italian entrepreneurs' lobbying association, if Italy were as corrupt as Spain its economy would increase by 0.6 per cent, which, in country enduring a now seven-year recession, would be a boon. Adding to its woes, between 2002 and 2012, the Italian tourism sector has lost 30 per cent of revenues, dropping to a 3.7 per cent share of the world market from 5.5 per cent at the turn of the century. The country, now pinning its hopes on the potential of the Milan 2015 Expo, used to be the world's number one destination, but is now ranked number five by UNWTO, after France, the United States, Spain and China. So it seems tiny Vatican city is rescuing surrounding Italy, at least in terms of tourism. The Catholic church, an institution that is more than 2,000 years old, could be able to treat some of Europe's sickest country's maladies.

Rome's two airports, says Adr, the company that runs them, expect two million travellers for this year's Christmas holidays, a 15 per cent increase year on year. Religious tourists generally travel on the cheap, it is true, but it is also true that they tend to travel in the low season. It is clear the combined effect of the Bergoglio papacy and the predicted Alitalia turnaround, the Italian flag carrier is now 49 per cent owned by Etihad Airways, has a potential to provide good figures.

There is an interesting link between the image of the Vatican in the world and air traffic, according to Oliviero Baccelli, a transport economics professor at Milan's Bocconi University, "Especially from South America and Spain", two regions where Catholics are in the majority.

"Of course it will take still some time to relaunch Alitalia, in the first three years there won't be great developments but rather a restructuring," he says.

Yet from a geographical point of view Bergoglio's reach in South America and Etihad's plans somehow overlap "since Etihad wants to expand Fiumicino routes, Rome's main airport, mainly right towards the Americas", he adds.

The new routes in sight for 2017-2018 for the reborn Alitalia include Mexico City and Santiago de Chile, says Mr Baccelli.

In addition to changing the Catholic church, Pope Francis also played a key role in the recent deal between Washington and Cuba to ease relations.

But sometimes it is difficult to fully grasp his allure, as pointed out by the Vatican analyst Sandro Magister. His economic views are praised as those of a true believer in free markets by the Action Institute, a US think tank, while at the same time he is applauded by far left movements and radicals for his strong criticism against capitalism.

Yet his refusal of privileges usually associated with his role, his escapes from the Vatican (he reportedly disguises himself as an average citizen and goes strolling through Rome's small, crowded streets and ruins) he wins over Catholic hearts and minds. And his popularity can prove to be a real asset for Rome's tourism sector and Alitalia's future. It may also prove the best shield against the cab driver Gabriele's worst fears.

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Published: December 24, 2014 04:00 AM


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