The members of the College of Cardinals aren't the only ones making travel plans to Rome.
Massive crowds are expected to descend upon the Eternal City in the coming weeks as tourists scramble to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI before he steps down Thursday. And many more may be in Rome during the conclave, possibly when a new pope is chosen.
The AFP reported an expected 200,000 people for the pope's final general audience in St. Peter's on Wednesday.
Keane Travel, a Catholic travel agency that's organized trips to Rome during canonizations and beatifications said the crowds "will be immense." Joann Keane, the company owner, said the people would be "spilling out of St. Peter Square, down the Via della Conciliazione to the Tiber River."
The pope's unexpected resignation has led to an increase in hotel bookings in Rome. Expedia.co.uk reported a 35 percent spike -- a trend, the online booking agent said, that began within 24 hours of the pope's resignation announcement. The site attributed the increase to "eagerness to see the pope before his final departure or anticipation of the new papal appointment."
Lastminute.com also reported a spike in hotel bookings, with Germans – perhaps not surprisingly, given the pope's heritage – leading the way of those booking trips to Rome. The website specializing in last minute deals said in the week following the pope's announcement, hotel bookings in Rome among Germans rose 80 percent from the week prior. Bookings in Spain and France followed at 44 and 46 percent, respectively.
There was also an increase in flights booked from the United Kingdom, to the tune of 26 percent. "Ever since the pope announced his resignation we've seen a surge in last minute bookings to Rome as people rush to see the pope's big farewell," said Mark Maddock, Managing Director of lastminute.com UK and Ireland. "This is clearly a historic event that many want to be a part of."
Interest in vacation rentals in Rome is also on the rise. HomeAway.co.uk said inquiries on Roman properties have increased by 23 percent since the pope's resignation when compared to the two weeks prior.
"Right now, interest is still relatively steady since no dates have been set," said HomeAway senior vice president of the Americas, Jon Gray. "I would anticipate these numbers to be even higher once the conclave dates are known and, again, surrounding the papal inauguration."
Some experts think the demand will grow even greater once a new pope is in place.
"We have seen a huge increase in interest in the country and people are quicker to close their bookings, and we are getting more requests where people want to attend papal audience, private Vatican tours and Sunday Mass," said Karishma Kaul, Kensington Tours Italy manager.
Kensington Tours leads privately guided travel to more than 90 countries, including Italy.
"We imagine that once the new pope is in place, even more people will want to visit Italy," Kaul said.