Ranked among the top must see destinations in the world, the Vatican Museums attracts thousands of tourists every day who are willing to shuffle though its jam-packed corridors, elbow their way through the mob and endure the crowd-generated heat to get a glimpse of its artistic treasures.
The overcrowding of tourist attractions in the eternal city has always been an issue, but a new and long-awaited decree by the Roman police, enacted on July 9, hopes to make a difference by prohibiting the Skip-the-Line ticket sales from third party tour operators.
“These regulations occur at a time when the situation had become unsustainable due to the great chaos created outside the monuments by the Skip-the-Line vendors, who are eager to sell their merchandise, and the oceanic crowds that were formed as a consequence,” said Ester Scoditti, an experienced Italian archeologist, lecturer and guide, in a July 14 email to Crux.
When visiting Rome, you may see the so-called Skip-the-Line vendors haggling in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican or buzzing around other sought-after tourist attractions. Often more gifted in charisma than art history, and frequently lacking a tour guide permit, these vendors attract visitors by promising not to have to wait in the eternal lines.
Beyond cruising past the queue for the attractions, Skip-the-Line vendors sometimes offer a guided tour, and prices may vary depending on the type. Buying a ticket for the Vatican Museums from them, for example, allows the visitors a speedy way in and Cicero to guide them though the museums and the Sistine Chapel, for a price of course.
Visitors wishing to skip the infamous Vatican Museums line are encouraged to buy online tickets in advance, but for the impromptu traveler the Skip-the-Line offer is a tempting alternative. Tour companies buy online tickets for tourist attractions en-masse and then sell them to unsuspecting tourists at a substantial price increase.
This has proved to be a very profitable business for the tour operators. A Vatican Museum ticket costs $24 online and $19 on the spot. The Skip-the-Line vendors resell those same tickets for something between $55 and $70, more than doubling their profit.
According to local reports, this business earns almost $340,000 a day – in cash – by tour operators.
Due to the high margins for profit, there is heated competition between the tour operators that rule the Skip-the-Line business.
Last May, a group of eight promoters (meaning people who sell the Skip-the-Line tickets) belonging to different and competing tour companies had a full-blown fight in front of the Vatican Museums, using badges and umbrellas as weapons. The bout became so violent that the police intervened, and one promoter ended up in the hospital.
Scoditti said the situation was so bad at the Vatican Museums that the art had become a secondary concern, the first one being having to negotiate the crowd ushered in by the Skip-the-Line vendors. She also said that the higher number of visitors made it more difficult to monitor the crowds and avoid graffiti and vandalism.
The new decree has already begun to make an impact on the experience of visitng the Vatican Museums, she said, as tourists and guides walked in to find a more peaceful and enjoyable experience.
“Suddenly, it’s as if it were clear after the storm,” Scoditti said, “the magnificent halls of the Vatican Museums are more easily navigated and our visitors can appreciate the interest and beauty of the collections, not to mention the sacredness of places like the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.”
While the museums remain somewhat crowded, she added, a slew of new tours offering early or after-hours entrances have diluted the number of people at any given time.
“How wonderful, to reclaim the Vatican Museums!” she said, adding that she hopes the decree continues to be enacted and respected. “It must be, so that visitors may appreciate the collections that the popes were concerned with collecting and inheriting us with.”
Not everyone was happy with the new decree. Skip-the-Line operators and promoters took to the square in front of the Colosseum – another heavily frequented haunt – in protest on July 9.
One man, who works for a tour organization that profited off the Skip-the-Line tickets, decided to scale the Colosseum and threatened to throw himself off in protest, after two of his colleagues were prohibited from selling tickets and were fined $450 each by the local police.
“It would be a mistake to think that these street activities are a side job,” said Isabella Ruggiero, President of the Association for Qualified Tour Guides, interviewed by the Roman daily Il Messaggero on July 9.
“All these on-the-square businesses are today distinguished by high organization levels, dozens of collaborators, sophisticated software, dozens of accounts and credit cards, a turnover worth millions, part of which is off the books,” she added, explaining the high stakes.
The decree may have an immediate effect on the experience of many tourists visiting the eternal city this Summer, but doubts remain as to whether it will stick. Once the protester was forced to descend the Colosseum and the policemen left, tour guides told local reporters that Skip-the-Line vendors were quick to return. Back to business as usual.
Follow Claire Giangravè on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave
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