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Merchants, hotels benefiting from swarm of pilgrims

ROME—Pope John Paul II often cautioned against the excesses of unbridled capitalism, so it's tempting to wonder what he would have made of the scene on the Borgo Santo Spirito near the Vatican this week, as customers swarmed a line of shops to snap up religious trinkets.

"This exceeds all limits," said Maria Mocnik, 73, a dealer of religious items in the neighborhood for 47 years. She said she'd never seen anything like the current frenzy of buying and selling.

"I haven't eaten since yesterday," said her sister, Giovanna, who came by to help behind the counter of the small store, as euros practically flew into the till.

Most would never be so indelicate as to put it this way, but for some merchants, the pope's death has been a bonanza. Codacons, an Italian consumer group, estimated that pilgrims and tourists would spend more than $300 million on transportation, food, lodging and other items.

In addition to the souvenir peddlers, bars and restaurants around the Vatican have extended their hours to accommodate the throngs. Hotels have filled their rooms with top-paying customers, including many of the 3,500 journalists the Vatican has accredited.

Italian consumer protection authorities said this week that they had stepped up enforcement efforts after reports of price-gouging—$5 bottles of water, exorbitant taxi fees and the like.

"Scavenging off the death of the Holy Father is immoral and reprehensible," said Gianluca Di Ascenzo, vice president of Codacons, which documented some of the overcharges.

After Italian newspapers began reporting $6 slices of pizza, the Italian government swung into action. At a news conference Wednesday in Rome's ornate City Hall, Col. Giuseppe Zafarana, of Italy's tax police, said inspectors had visited about 400 businesses around St. Peter's Square and found that about 10 percent were overcharging, meaning their prices exceeded what was on the stickers.

Gougers could face fines, officials said, though not criminal prosecutions.

But Italy is a country where 25 percent of the economy is "black," that is, off the tax rolls. Officials acknowledged that the huge crowds around St. Peter's limited their ability to police prices.

Merchants associations, meanwhile, asserted that most businesses were behaving honorably.

"Some rotten apples always come up," said Fabio Camilletti, spokesman for the National Confederation of Small and Medium-Sized Businesses. "The actual occurrence of this price-gouging is really quite limited, and what we should be really focusing on and appreciating is the assistance these businesses are actually providing people."

Some of the real money is being made by hotels, especially those with roof terraces that offer views of St. Peter's Basilica. Television networks reportedly paid six-figure sums, plus monthly fees for years, to hold those spots, and are paying even more to keep them.

Roberta Mencucci, the sales manager at Hotel Atlante Star, whose stunning rooftop view is the backdrop for CBS News broadcasts, said there was hardly a room to be had in the Vatican area.

"A lot of people called and cancelled their holiday, but then the journalists came and took all the rooms," she said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): POPE-MONEY

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