Number drop good news for visitors ahead of JPII beatification

Aerial view of Vatican City

There has been a sharp drop in the predicted number of attendees for May's Papal Beatification, according to several sources -- but it could spell good news for travelers.

Vatican authorities originally predicted 2.5 million people would crowd the streets of Rome for John Paul II's beatification, which will take place May 1.

However, Rome's deputy mayor sharply cut that prediction March 28, saying that it believed the figure would more likely be 1.2 to 1.3 million, blaming a spate of booking cancellations, in part because of recent events in Japan and the Middle East.

Figures quoted by several news agencies following a March 29 press conference by the Vatican's travel body Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (ORP) suggested that number could be as low as 300,000 on the day of beatification, although with some tourists visiting for related events on the preceding and following days, the overall number is likely to be higher.

It's difficult to tell exactly how many will head to Rome in the hope of getting a place in St Peter's Square, although it seems clear that the event isn't living up to initial expectations.

The earlier figure of 2.5 million was calculated on the number of visitors to Rome between Pope John Paul II's death and the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, so perhaps it's no surprise that in a financially-straitened world, with other events high on the news agenda, visitor numbers are lower than expected.

Pilgrims from Poland, the second-largest source market for the event, have reportedly also been put off by the wild predictions of visitors, with tour operators unable to fill trips.

Others have most likely been discouraged by Vatican warnings over hotel price hikes and other scams -- although the event in St Peter's Square isn't ticketed, that hasn't stopped unscrupulous individuals trying to flog them online.

Block booking by agencies hasn't helped the situation either, reducing availability in Rome and pushing up prices, although with many agents now unable to fill the rooms they booked in advance, it looks like things could be about to get easier for those who want to attend.

ORP's Cesare Atuire says that it has become much easier to find places in the past month as agencies try to offload their bookings -- his organization offers two nights in a three- or four-star property in Rome for €190, considerably below the March average rate of €125 a night (for all room types, according to price comparison site Trivago).

A quick search on other price comparison sites such as offers current rates from around €100, although properties in the center are generally closer to €200.

Sleep in a tent with other pilgrims and that price drops event further, with ORP quoting a rate of €55 for two nights in its Youth Village for young adults outside of the city.

Either way, any spike in visitor numbers is going to be a good news for Italy's tourism industry no matter how large it turns out to be -- but tourism authorities in London, predicting 600,000 visitors for April's royal wedding, will be hoping their numbers stay a little more solid.