Ticket to frustration? Visitors to Pantheon get a lesson in Roman confusion

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Ticket to frustration? Visitors to Pantheon get a lesson in Roman confusion
Visitors outside the Pantheon in Rome, on Nov. 18, 2022. There is now a 5 euro fee to get into one of Italy’s most popular sites, but the process has been bewildering for some, and there are fears the system could be abused. (Francesco Lastrucci/The New York Times)

by Elisabetta Povoledo

ROME.- The lines to get into the Pantheon, one of Rome’s most famous ancient sites, were high-season typical, snaking past the obelisk-topped fountain in the middle of the square to the cafes at the back.

But they were especially slow-moving on Monday, the first day that the Italian Culture Ministry introduced an entrance ticket, priced at 5 euros, to enter the 2,000-year-old monument.

Hotly debated for years, the ticketing plan was announced in March by the culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, who said that charging a small fee to help maintain the most popular cultural site in Italy — with about 9 million visitors a year — “was an objective based on common sense.”

The equivalent of about $5.50 might be a small price to pay to see one of the world’s most iconic monuments — where painter Raphael is buried — but the new fee has been accompanied by stumbling blocks.

“Until now, the Pantheon could be visited by anyone, you just had to line up,” said Isabella Ruggiero, president of AGTA, one of the main national associations representing official tour guides.

Not anymore.

Tourists have been confounded by the new rules: They can either buy a ticket online, a process that is anything but simple, or wait in line under the hot summer sun outside the Pantheon.

Some people have booked 10 euro audio tours on an official Pantheon website only to realize too late that their booking did not include the entrance ticket, which can be purchased from another Culture Ministry site or at the monument itself. Many visitors are from outside Italy, but some foreign credit cards have been rejected on the online platform.

And then there is the biggest concern: The potential emergence of a ticketing black market, as has happened at the Colosseum, another enormously popular tourist site. Critics say that tour operators snatch up tickets in bulk, making it difficult for tourists to buy them at the regular price.

Disorganization is common in Rome “when it comes to taxis, parking, garbage disposal, public transportation,” and disorganization creates opportunities for illegality, said Massimiliano Tonelli, editorial director of Artribune, an art magazine. He added that “taking advantage of chaos is a very Italian story.”

Tour guides and other tourism operators describe an emergency situation at the Colosseum, whose visitors totaled 7.6 million a year before the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. Officially, entrance tickets are priced at 18 euros, but in reality, they are a rare commodity that can cost two or even three times as much when bought through secondary sellers.

Now, introducing entry tickets for the Pantheon has raised concerns that they, too, will become difficult to find, “like at the Colosseum,” Ruggiero said.

Tickets to visit the Colosseum are mostly sold out on the official website until early August, when it is still possible to buy a few hundred of the more than 20,000 tickets available every day. Meanwhile, a variety of agencies and tour operators offer considerably more expensive guided tours at all hours of the day.

Critics, tour guides among them, have accused these operators of scooping up hundreds, even thousands, of tickets when they go on sale using bots or other forms of technology. Scalping tickets is illegal in Italy, so the Colosseum tickets are resold as packaged tours that can be bought online or directly at the site, where on a recent sunny morning at least a dozen purported tour operators were on the tourist beat.

“Tickets, madam? I have a tour starting soon,” came one pitch. “The Colosseum is sold out — skip the line with a tour,” came another.

The situation has been aggravated this year, tourism operators say, because after three years of pandemic restrictions, travelers are flocking to Europe in record numbers.

“The situation at the Colosseum, a public monument, is indecent,” said Ruggiero, who said that the forced tours were tantamount to “blackmail.”

Alfonsina Russo, director of the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum, said that last year, she had filed a complaint about the ticketing problem with police, and that an investigation was underway to identify operators abusing the system. She said she hoped the investigation would lead to concrete measures to address the problem.

In May, she reopened an onsite ticket office that had been closed during the pandemic to allow last-minute visitors to buy tickets “to give everyone who wants to visit the Colosseum the possibility to do it,” she said. But the lines can be long.

CoopCulture, the company that has run the Colosseum’s ticketing for more than two decades, said it had put in place “sophisticated systems to counter these phenomena of massive purchases, blocking a very high number of accesses to the sales platform and also suspending contracts with tour operators.” If tickets were being sold at “sky-high prices” on the Colosseum grounds, it was not the company’s fault, it said.

Given the scarcity of tickets, critics were dubious that these sophisticated systems were working.

“Let’s see if they can improve the service in these final months,” Russo said, referring to CoopCulture losing a bid this year to renew its concession. It is appealing the decision. But the new contract gives the Colosseum greater oversight over ticket sales, Russo said, “a real turning point.”

The Pantheon could be the next test, using a new ticketing platform that the Culture Ministry expects to extend to other state museums and monuments in the coming months. (Some visitors at the Pantheon wondered whether it might have been wiser to test out the platform on a less popular site.)

About one-third of the ticket-generated funds will go to the Catholic Church, which will use it for charitable causes. The Culture Ministry will use the rest for upkeep of the Pantheon as well as for the refurbishment of areas at the rear of the monument, including a lapidarium housing stone artifacts.

Massimo Osanna, the director of Italy’s state museums, said the new Culture Ministry website had been designed to address the concerns over ticketing, which he acknowledged was a problem. The ministry, he said, was working with other institutions, including law enforcement agencies, to try to counter the issue.

Gabriella Musto, director of the Pantheon, said the ministry and the monument were working to ensure that tickets remained accessible to all.

For now, though, tourists at the Pantheon are dealing with real problems rather than predicted ones.

Will Taylor, an environmental scientist from Brisbane, Australia, said Thursday that the audio tour tickets were “a bit misleading,” though he acknowledged that once he was in the monument, the experience had been “amazing.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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