Wed, Feb 21, 2007 - Page 12 News List

Vatican struggles with overcrowding

By Elisabetta Povoledo  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A view of the Sistine Chapel during a baptizing ceremony, Jan. 7, 2007.


Visitors to the Vatican are getting a heads-up that nothing is eternal — at least when it comes to the Holy See's museums. Admission prices just went up by a euro to 13 euros, or about US$17.15 at US$1.32 to the euro, and opening hours have shrunk for visitors not affiliated with organized tour groups.

Until very recently, doors opened at 8:45am. Under the new rules, which went into effect last month, Vatican-approved tour groups with reservations will still be able to get in at that early hour, but individual visitors must wait until 10am.

Vatican officials say the shorter hours are part of a plan to control overcrowding by phasing in a mandatory reservation system over the next year for all visitors, whether they are on a group tour or not. Tour groups are being given priority now, they say, because they are easier to manage.

But some in the Italian tourism industry say that when you add the time waiting in line — which can be two hours or longer in the summer — and the fact that tickets are sold only until 12:30pm in the off season and 3:30pm in high season, visitors not part of a group may have barely enough time to see anything at all.

And of course there is much to see: Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, for instance, and the rooms Raphael painted for Pope Julius II. These treasures of Western art are, for many tourists, a principal reason to visit Rome in the first place.

But the number of visitors to the Vatican has nearly doubled in the last 10 years, hitting a high of 4.2 million in 2006, and has resulted in the overcrowding of a structure originally built to accommodate a Renaissance papal court, not up to 20,000 visitors at a time shuffling around one another.

Between enormous tour groups and rowdy school-trippers, a visit to the Vatican Museums can become "more of a traumatic than an artistic experience for tourists," said Paola, one of several guides who were interviewed and who asked that their full names not be used for fear of offending the Vatican.

The changes come as many Italian cultural sites take measures to control overcrowding.

Before a booking system went into effect at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the lines at the entrance rivaled those at the Vatican. While the Uffizi caps at 900 the number of visitors who can be inside at one time, some 1.5 million visitors managed to tour the galleries last year. Once a major restructuring project is completed in four or five years, the number of people allowed in at one time is expected to increase significantly.

"We're trying to make the structure more functional," said Cristina Acidini, who oversees Florence's state museums.

The Colosseum, too, has a booking service, but because all visitors have to pass through security checkpoints, with 3.9 million visitors a year, lines are inevitable. "It's still pretty fast," said Rossella Rea, the archaeologist in charge of the monument.

But it could be faster, so a new entrance point is being developed at the eastern end of the Colosseum. If financing allows, a now-closed section of the main floor's walkway will be restored this year, so visitors will have more space to spread out. Granted, the Roman amphitheater is large (it once held 80,000 ancient Romans), but tour groups still manage to trip over one another. "It's not that it's a delicate monument that's going to wear out," Rea said. "It's more a question of directing pedestrian traffic inside."

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