Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pope’s visit: expenses unknown

With less than three months to go before the scheduled visit by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to Malta in April, the Finance Ministry is unable to quantify how much this event is expected to cost the exchequer: still less to supply a precise breakdown of expenses.

And while the Maltese authorities will assume full responsibility for the logistics associated with the visit, the costs relating to the Benedict XVI’s personal security are understood to have skyrocketed on account of last month’s attack at the St Peter’s Basilica in Rome – when the 82-year-old Pontiff was assaulted by a disturbed individual, who succeeded in pulling him to the ground by his vestments.

Pope Benedict himself was not hurt in the incident, though the Vatican’s security agents came under intense fire for the perceived laxity with which they allowed a known potential assailant within striking distance.

Following a revision of the Vatican’s security protocol last month, the exigencies surrounding the Pope’s personal security have been updated accordingly.

A Vatican delegation arrived in Malta yesterday to discuss (among other things) security issues, but local authorities remain tight-lipped about the associated costs.

“The visit of Pope Benedict XVI, whilst an apostolic visit, is also a State visit since the Pope is the Head of the State of the Vatican,” a Finance Ministry spokesman told MaltaToday. “So the Maltese government is extending all the courtesies and support that are usually given to these dignitaries.”

As a rule, this support includes security measures such as closed circuit TV cameras (for public events such as a Pontifical masses), additional police presence on the streets, the assignment of temporary security personnel to the Pope’s entourage, increased intelligence surveillance and the temporary adoption of certain anti-terror measures, such as heightened airport security.

“Apart of the spiritual aspect of the visit, that is being taken care of by the local Church authorities, the Maltese government is taking care of all the logistical requirements,” the official said. “At this stage it is difficult to give an exact figure of the expenses incurred to organise this national event.”

This contrasts somewhat sharply with preparations for previous large-scale ‘national event’ such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November 2005: when the Finance Ministry commissioned international auditing firm Grant Thornton to quantify the associated costs, and afterwards provided a full breakdown of expenses.

The CHOGM summit cost the exchequer an estimated €6 million, of which over €500,000 were spent on security equipment for the police and Armed Forces, and nearly €1 million on services provided by private and parastatal companies.

Admittedly, the Pope’s visit in April is unlikely to even come close to this figure, as CHOGM was on a much larger scale involving the presence of no fewer than 53 world heads of State.

On that occasion there was even a specific ‘CHOGM taskforce’ appointed for the duration of the event, and headed by veteran diplomat Saviour Sellini.

Pope Benedict’s visit may be considered a small event by comparison, but it is nonetheless expected to attract conceivably as much local and international interest: if not even more.

Like CHOGM 2005, therefore, the April visit is also expected to induce an economic ‘multiplier effect’ of its own, with increased bookings for religious tourism, higher hotel occupancy rates, contracts for the private sector insofar as logistics are concerned (accommodation, catering, etc) as well as a host of other related knock-on benefits.
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