A surge in Catholic pilgrims following this year’s election of Pope Francis is fuelling a tourism boom in Rome, according to the latest figures.

The regional tourism authority says the biggest increase in visits to the Italian capital has come from Latin America – up 19.6 per cent compared to the same period in 2012.

“We have been helped by a steady rise in the number of tourists to Rome in particular those coming from Latin American countries,” said Marta Leonori, Rome’s councillor for tourism.

“The election of Pope Francis is the one of the main reasons. The arrivals in this sector have let to a significant jump.”

Argentinian visitors are leading the transatlantic boom as the number from the pope’s homeland has led to a record 66.5 per cent increase this year.

Before being elected in March this year, Pope Francis was the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.

On the night of his election, St Peter’s Square was filled with Catholic pilgrims waving Argentinian flags and his official visit to Brazil in July attracted crowds of several hundred thousand followers in Rio de Janeiro.

The total number of foreign visitors to Rome is up 6.24 per cent this year and many are joining thousands of Italians who are flocking to papal audiences held twice a week on Wednesday and Sunday.

While European and Asian tourists tend to stay in the heart of Rome, the tourism authority says visitors from Latin America are choosing cheaper hotels and camping grounds on the outskirts of the city. This has led to a boom in regional accommodation and coach travel to the Vatican.

Around 12,000 coach tickets to the Vatican were sold every day in September while the number was as high as 17,000 in May.

Rome parishes have also reported a surge in attendance following the pope’s election, even though some priests say divorced couples and gays are looking for greater liberalisation from the pope on key issues.

“As priests we are facing new problems with damaged families, remarried divorcees and people living together,” said Father Giovanni Biallo from the parish of Saint Mary the Consoler at Casal Bertone.

“The sacraments have to be respected until there are new regulations. But the climate has changed with Francis.”

Photo Credit: People wave flags as Pope Francis arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican. Max Rossi / Reuters