Pope Francis: The Patron Saint of Tourism?

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Jo Piazza
·Managing Editor
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Pope Francis blesses a woman during his weekly general audience in the Pope Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Aug. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Folks in Philadelphia still speak with pride about the time Pope John Paul II visited the city in 1979. Next month, a new pope, with an even higher profile (and certainly a much larger social media following), will once again bless the City of Brotherly Love with his presence, along with a formidable boost in tourism.

“We know Pope Francis attracts attention wherever he is, and this visit will touch the perception people have of Philadelphia,” said Meryl Levitz, the CEO of Visit Philadelphia. “In addition to being a religious figure, he is a world figure, so we expect tourism in the short term and long term to be affected by his visit.”

Call it a papal bump, if you will. Pope Francis has been a boon for tourism all over the world. In 2013, in the first nine months following his election, 6.6 million tourists visited the Vatican — almost three times as many as the 2.35 million who came the year before.

Hotels and services in the Philippines received a similar bump in January of this year when the Pope made his visit there.

Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Alfredo Yao called the papal visit “advertising for the Philippines.”

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Pope Francis caresses 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar, a rescued street child, during his meeting with youths at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

And when the Pope visited Albania in 2014, it was described as nothing short of a game changer.

“The visit of … figure like the Pope is positive PR, and the attention it will draw in the media will counterbalance the unfair image of Albania as Muslim and backward,” Kliton Gerxhani, an Albanian tourism consultant, said at the time.

Next month will be the first trip to the United States for the head of the 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church. While Francis will also be visiting New York and Washington, D.C., during his trip to the States, Philadelphia is the one stop where visitors are expected to be able to see and spend time with the pope in the flesh.

Pope Francis will be attending the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. He will arrive on Saturday, Sept. 26, and speak at Independence Hall before celebrating at the Festival of Families, a free party held on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. On the afternoon of Sept. 27, the pope will lead Mass for hundreds of thousands of people, also on the parkway.

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The Go Philadelphia! app will work offline in case service is disrupted by the influx of visitors to the city. (Photo: Go Philadelphia!)

Anticipating a demand for information, the World Meeting of Families created the Go Philadelphia! mobile app, which provides a guide to all things papal, including places to visit, emergency information, and public transportation information. The app will also provide real-time translation and captioning in eight languages during portions of the Papal Mass and maps of papal visit locations.

Related: No Big Deal — I Just Booked the Pope on a Plane

Hotels in the city are being snatched up quickly, and this coming Thursday, the home rental site Airbnb is holding an event in Philadelphia for those thinking about hosting, so they can meet the Airbnb team, other hosts in the area, and local city officials to get advice on how to best prepare their homes for those traveling to the city for the visit.

“We’ve seen a 270 percent increase in listings on Airbnb.com since April, which means more people are starting to list their private rooms or entire homes up on Airbnb.com for events like the Made in America Festival and the papal visit,” said Alex Ward, the general manager of new markets in the United States for Airbnb. “The papal visit has definitely had an effect on demand and as a result, more people are becoming hosts in the city to welcome them.”

The home rental site HomeAway also says it has seen a 795 percent increase in demand in Philadelphia short-term rentals, which is based on a combination of bookings and inquiries compared to the same time last year.

HomeAway has also seen an uptick of 45 percent in demand in D.C. and a 40 percent increase in the surrounding D.C. area across Virginia and Maryland suburbs during the pope’s visit.

The papal bump also seems to have a spillover effect. Lancaster, Pa., about two hours outside of both Philadelphia and Washington D.C., is also preparing for a boost.

Related: The Pope Francis Bus Tour in Buenos Aires

“We’re aware of up to two dozen bus groups that are actually staying here in Lancaster and then going on down into Philly,” Joel Cliff, of Discover Lancaster, told local news station Fox 43. “So they’re using hotel rooms here simply because it works better for their itinerary, their costs.”

Cliff is also hoping that groups take a day trip to see the local attractions in the region, which includes Amish Country.

Beyond a spike in September, Philadelphia is hoping to see more long-term effects from the visit.

“There will be a carryover. People will see things that intrigue them and they will come back,” Levitz said.

Other locations around the globe are hoping to see a similar interest from papal tourism. In November, Pope Francis will travel to Africa, where he is scheduled to visit Uganda, Kenya, and the Central African Republic. Francis’s visit to Uganda will be the third by a sitting pope, and the Uganda Tourism Board estimates that around 10 million tourists — both local and international — will turn out for the visit.

Related: Take a Gay and Lesbian Pilgrimage With a Catholic Nun

“Tour operators are expecting to gain from this visit. Many people from different continents will be persuaded to explore more about this East African country as a result of pope’s visit. Being the fact that he will visit some cultural and religious sites like Namugongo shrine, it will help in boosting the country’s tourism,” the tour company Maranatha posted on its website.

“Hopefully this upcoming event will help in boosting the country’s tourism, which has of lately been affected by various happenings in the world.”

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