Vatican bank card ban hits tourists

Visitors forced to pay in cash after bank card services are halted in money-laundering row

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 6:32am

A suspension of electronic payments in the Vatican City is threatening finances in the world's smallest state as thousands of pilgrims and tourists are forced to use cash only in museums and shops with yearly sales of more than US$100 million.

Credit and debit card payments as well as cash withdrawals remained suspended in the papal state for a fourth day after the Bank of Italy refused a request by the operator, Deutsche Bank's Italian unit, to keep providing the services.

The central bank acted because the Vatican did not comply with international money laundering rules, a Bank of Italy official said.

"We expected to buy tickets with the credit card, but we had to use the cash, which is a problem for us as we will now have less money to use for the rest of the day," said Zhou Lingli, a student from Zhejiang, before entering the Vatican museums, which include the Sistine Chapel.

The sale of memorabilia, postage stamps and admission tickets to the Vatican museums is the main source of revenue for the Holy See apart from investments and donations.

The Vatican museums alone, with more than 5 million visitors, had sales of €91 million (HK$926 million) in 2011. The Vatican said yesterday the interruption to electronic payment services would be "brief".

The ban also affects souvenir and book shops, but cash withdrawals from machines operated by the Vatican bank, the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), are not affected.

The IOR has been at the centre of several financial scandals in recent years. Paolo Cipriani, director general of the bank, and its former head, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, were investigated by Italian prosecutors in 2010 for allegedly omitting data in wire transfers from an Italian account.

Prosecutors seized €23 million from a Rome bank account registered to the IOR amid suspicion of money-laundering violations as part of the probe.

The Italian probe triggered calls to bring the city-state in line with European Union financial rules and be more transparent.