PARIS The hours-long wait endured by hordes of tourists visiting the Eiffel Tower each year could become less painful if Paris presses forward with plans to move ticket counters and queuing underground, beneath the monument's giant feet.
On Tuesday, the city council will issue a call for architects to submit bids, which it will assess before launching a project to develop the area underneath the tower to relieve crowding and add sorely needed services.
The idea of digging underneath the 324-meter-high pride of Paris has been floating around for decades. But with around 7 million visitors flocking to the site each year, the pressure is on to make visiting the tower built by Gustave Eiffel in 1889 a more welcoming experience.
Since the area directly under the tower, which was built to celebrate modern French engineering, must remain empty and new construction is forbidden on the scenic Champ de Mars lawn that stretches out behind it, the only way is down.
Jean-Bernard Bros, president of the group that manages the tower, SETE, said it was imperative to improve the visitor experience at Paris' best-known tourist site.
"Because we need extra facilities to better welcome our visitors, the only way is to dig," Bros told Reuters.
While crowds of tourists will continue to swarm the site, queuing could be better organized in a subterranean space, sheltered from the elements, he added.
"It's a question of comfort, and to improve the reception for visitors," he said. "It's not nice to welcome visitors in the rain, and when it's really hot it's the same thing."
Up to two basement levels could also accommodate ticket counters and services like a coat check, information desk, toilets, souvenir shop and even a museum dedicated to Gustave Eiffel.
Any tinkering with the tower could elicit howls of protest from locals, who have grown to love the impressive wrought-iron spire despite 19th century critics calling it an eyesore.
But Bros said the point was not to create a new piece of public art - like the controversial pyramid at the main entrance of the Louvre Museum, which remains despised by many and loved by others - nor a commercial centre.
"The idea is create a space for things dedicated to the Eiffel Tower. It's not to make a commercial zone," he said.
Studies are still needed to determine definitively whether there is any risk of weakening the tower, as well evaluating the cost of any underground development.
The project - which could begin in two years and take another two to three years to complete - would mostly be funded by revenue generated by the tower itself, he said.
(Reporting By Alexandria Sage)