Conclave offers business boon for crisis-hit Rome

ROME (AFP) - The upcoming conclave to elect a new pope is proving a boon for business in Rome in a harsh economy - from a new iPad application to booked-out hotels and balconies rented out for stellar prices.

Thousands of pilgrims have descended on the Italian capital in what would normally be low season to bid a final farewell to Benedict XVI and watch the rare and centuries-old tradition of a papal conclave to vote in his successor.

One tool that could come in handy is "The Conclave Alert", an app that allows the faithful to keep up with news from the conclave, provides background on cardinals and gives an idea of stories that are trending on the web.

"We are expecting 5,000 to 6,000 downloads but we might be underestimating this as this is an exceptional event and the audience is global," said Andrea Dotti from Go2mkt, an information technology marketing company in Rome.

The app, which sells for 0.89 euros (S$1.50) in Italy, was downloaded by more than 100 users immediately after its launch this week - most of them from countries like South Korea, South America or northern Europe, he said.

Hotels are also cashing in on the influx of pilgrims at a time of recession in which many had been complaining about the fall in visitor numbers.

"We're booked up, we've had to turn people away!" said Antonio Galati, director of the 55-room Metropolis Hotel a short walk from St Peter's Square.

The hotel, a converted 16th-century clergy house, is even offering a "conclave package" advertised on its website, with a discount on meals in the restaurant housed in the former canteen used by Catholic priests through the centuries.

Mr Galati said his hope was that visitor numbers would increase after the election of a new pope - especially if he is not Italian.

"A South American pope would be great. Or Mexico. In fact, anyone from the Americas," Mr Galati said, adding: "The forecasts for 2013 were not very positive. We hope this event will give an added boost to tourism in Rome."

The four-star hotel has increased room prices only slightly - by around three percent - unlike some competitors and cash-in-hand operations around the Vatican where room rates are as high as 1,000 euros a night.

Adverts for holiday apartments for rent on the popular website have gone up 20 percent and requests for housing made through the site had risen by 30 percent even before the date of the conclave was known.

One landlord replaced his profile picture with a photo of Benedict XVI to make his point and many boasted of views on St Peter's Square where Catholic faithful can see the white smoke indicating a new pope has been elected.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims attended Benedict XVI's emotional final Sunday prayers in St Peter's Square and his last general audience in the same Vatican plaza - a series of historic events that may not happen again for a long time.

The last conclave when Benedict was elected was in 2005 but the one before that, which brought John Paul II to the throne of Peter, was in 1978.

There has been no papal resignation since the Middle Ages and virtually all the popes in modern history have served out their mandate until their deaths.

Souvenir shops on the Via della Conciliazione - the main avenue leading up to St Peter's Square - have also been making good money on the papal resignation.

Many had complained in the past that images of Benedict did not sell as well as those of his late predecessor John Paul II, seen by many as the first superstar pope.

This has changed in the days since the announcement and special sets of stamps and envelopes for the "Vacant See" - the interim between Benedict's resignation and the election of a new pope - are selling like hot cakes.

Dotti said his Internet monitoring had found interest in news items like the report of a fake bishop trying to join a meeting of cardinals or British cardinal Keith O'Brien pulling out after admitting to sexual misconduct.

Users were also looking into the backgrounds of possible future popes.

"There is a very high degree of scouting for information.... This type of search is exploding on a planetary level on a theme like the conclave since millions of people can make these investigations."

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