The Vatican Museums are introducing price increases and major changes to the queuing system effective from 8 January 2007. The biggest change to the current system is that while at present visitors without guides can enter the museums from 08.45, from January onwards they will only be able to get in at 10.00. The 08.00-10.00 slot will be given over exclusively to groups booked 30 days in advance through tourist agencies that are registered with the Italian chamber of commerce. It is planned that these agencies will have to pay an advance booking fee of 6,000 upfront with the museums, for which they will receive entrance vouchers in return. Each time the lump sum has been exhausted, the agency will have to pay a new advance. In future all foreign tour agencies and individual tour guides licensed by the city will have to operate through the official Italian agencies, unless they register with the chamber of commerce themselves. Otherwise they will have to join the main queue for 10.00 entry along with everyone else.

No guide wants to join the queue at 09.00 and have to stand there for two hours before getting in at 11.00, grumbles one guide who did not wish to be named.

During the summer months especially, the queue to get into the Vatican Museums can wind serpent-like all the way along Viale Vaticano to Piazza del Risorgimento a grim uphill stretch of road noisy with speeding traffic. The wait can last up to two hours, with tourists at the mercy of the rain or the cruel rays of Roman sun before they and their bags are scanned by security staff with airport-like efficiency. The number of visitors to the museums has been increasing annually and has almost doubled in the last ten years. In 2005, some 3.8 million people wandered through the museums around 10,000 visitors a day. As the museums director Francesco Buranelli has said, the museums were created as the popes private collections and were never designed for such a huge influx of people.

Various ambitious schemes have been touted as possible solutions to the problem of the queue. Most recently, there was talk of opening another entrance, and of building an underground tunnel for waiting visitors. It remains to be seen what impact the new entry system will have on the queues. Despite the fact that as of January all individual visitors will be entering the museums later, there are no plans to delay closing times. The museums will continue to shut at the same times as this year 13.45 in the winter and 16.45 in the summer. So people getting through the doors at 10.00 will be getting 75 minutes less in the museums and paying 1 more (see box).

They seem to be trying to make it so unpalatable that some people will be discouraged from going. I think they are trying to reduce the number of people going through without reducing their income, the guide continued.

But can the new arrangement really be a deliberate means to reduce the number of visitors coming through the museums doors? A museum spokesperson was wary of commenting.

So far in 2006 we have had 3.8 million visitors, so we expect to reach over 4 million by the end of the year, she said. We are in a period of growth, so we could expect another increase in 2007.

Despite the new system?

Its too early to say. We are just experimenting to see how we can best resolve the problems.

Although the cost of a ticket will go up by only 1 in 2007, from 12 to 13 (or to 15 if pre-booked), the museums are planning significant price hikes for the so-called special visits which take place in the afternoons when the museum is closed to the general public. These do not have to be booked by agencies but are booked directly with the museums.

Currently, a group of up to 30 people pays 1,800 (plus 12 for each ticket) to have the museums to itself. From January, this will go up to 2,500 plus 15 per ticket for a two-hour visit a 39 per cent increase. For groups of 400 people, the price almost triples from 7,000 to 20,000 plus 15 per ticket. Arguably, however, these are the people who can afford the sting mainly rich businesspeople on company-paid trips and conferences, although one guide reported the occasional couple celebrating a wedding anniversary who want to see the Sistine Chapel in peace.

What the Vatican is after is money, comments a registered tour guide who also wished to remain anonymous. Thats been clear for a long time. They arent subtle about it. They dont really understand how to treat people its just a question of herding people through. The Vatican Museums is my favourite place to take people on a tour in Rome, but you cant rush through it. I can easily spend four hours on a really good tour.

From January at least during the winter months when visiting hours will be 10.00-13.45 she, along with hundreds of thousands of other visitors, will barely have the luxury.

Vatican Museums, Viale Vaticano, tel. 0669884947, website: mv.vatican.va.

CURRENT SITUATION

Entrance for individuals:

Winter months: 08.45-13.45

(last entry 12.20)

Summer months: 08.45-16.45

(last entry 15.20)

Entrance for groups:

Priority queue from 08.00-08.45 for groups accompanied by a registered tour guide. After 08.45 groups join the main queue.

Ticket prices: