Rome booked out for John Paul II beatification

More than two million pilgrims are expected to throng the streets of Rome for the beatification ceremony of John Paul II on May 1, leaving travel agencies desperate for accommodation and hotel prices soaring.

The Vatican expects as many as two and a half million people to flock to the ceremony, according to Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The ceremony will be led by Pope Benedict XVI in St Peter's Square, where John Paul II's funeral took place only six years ago.

"Since the beatification announcement, bookings have exploded," said Giuseppe Roscioli, head of Federalberghi Roma, which represents around 500 hotels and offers around 90,000 of the capital's 150,000 beds.

Hotels and city authorities are bracing themselves for crowds as big as the ones that descended on the Vatican when John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, after a pontificate that spanned a quarter century.

Roscioli said the Vatican's decision to hold the celebration on May 1 complicated matters, because it coincides with a public holiday in much of Europe and is a peak period of tourism in Italy.

"It's like wanting to organise an event in Monaco during the Formula One Grand Prix. It's absurd. It's obvious that the Vatican's calendar has nothing to do with day-to-day life," he said.

"Our hotels published this year's prices last year, when we had no idea what date the beatification would be. If a hotel wants to raise its prices it risks being punished by the law," said Roscioli.

However, since the date was announced, prices have sky-rocketed. Some two-star hotels are hoping for 330 euros ($447) a night and some four-stars are asking 1,760 euros ($2,386) for a suite.

Specialist religious tourism agency Raptim said it has been swamped by requests from Africa, Brazil and John Paul II's homeland of Poland in particular.

"We have 500 people on the waiting list and we're still getting requests!" said group leader Gabriella Pandolfini.

Despite logistical problems plaguing some pilgrims planning their trip to Rome, excitement reigns in one of the city's most unusual watering holes, Pub John Paul II, which opened last year in the city centre.

"John Paul II is the saint for youth and we want this place to be a place to remember him," said Massimo Camussi, who is organising musical evenings and film showings at the pub in the run-up to the beatification.

The pub first opened as a kind of permanent reminder of World Youth Day, which was celebrated in Rome to mark the Catholic Church's Jubilee in 2000.

The Vatican has yet to publish the details for the big day, but sources suggest a vigil may be held in Rome's Circus Maximus arena the evening before the beatification, with a mass in St. Peter's Square on the day.

The Vatican square will be open from midnight the night before the ceremony and entrance to the basilica will be free for pilgrims.

The celebrations may turn out to cost Rome's city hall dearly though. When mourners flocked for John Paul II's funeral, the city's cleaning bill came to eight million euros.

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