St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. PICTURE: REUTERS

Rome - The shock resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has not only stunned the world, but thrust Rome into the spotlight.

In the past week, has reported an increase of more than a third (35 percent) in hotel bookings made to the Eternal City, compared to the equivalent days last year.

And Italian hotel association Federalberghi is said to have seen a spike in bookings from February 27, the day before the Pope’s official resignation date.

The pontiff said he has become too infirm to handle the burdens of the papacy and will be the first pope to step down in six centuries.

While the news sent shock waves around the globe, it also prompted speculation among travellers about whether they will be able to see the Vatican’s famous sights as the Church begins the process of electing a new leader.

A process known as “conclave” will decide the successor to Pope Benedict, when cardinals gather as early as March 15, according to the Vatican.

The process takes place behind closed doors at the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, a popular attraction for visitors to the city.

Il Messaggero (The Messenger) reported that Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, had asked Prime Minister Mario Monti for funds to cater to the influx of pilgrims expected to come to the city, particularly from February 27.

Personalities and dignitaries are expected to arrive in Rome from all over the world to mark the occasion.

There is also predicted to be a large amount of interest during the conclave period. was awash with queries about how the situation would impact holidaymakers’ travel plans.

“Just heard the news… was planning to be at the Vatican March 17th,” wrote one.

“I know the Sistine Chapel will be closed obviously but will the museums and St Peter’s be accessible?”

A spokeswoman for the Italian tourist board said: “In short, the next two weeks will be fairly quiet with big crowds expected only for the Sunday’s Angelus (when the Pope appears in St Peter’s Square for the blessing).”

Easter is also traditionally a busy time in the city.

According to the Vatican press office, St Peter’s Basilica will remain open.

UK-based Catholic tour operator Tangney Tours said it had seen increased interest in trips to Rome in light of the news.

The family-run business, which caters for some 10 000 pilgrims annually, said that one group had swelled its numbers from 60 to 100 people.

“When a new Pope is elected we’ve always had a lot of demand. To go and see someone retiring… we’ve not been there before,” said Nicholas Tangney.

“I think we’ll probably see more movement when the new Pope is elected.” - Saturday Star