It's been about two years since Spanish scientists asked to examine the contents of this Caribbean nation's most celebrated tomb to determine whether the centuries-old bones are actually those of Christopher Columbus.

They've been told yes, no and maybe.

A change in the Dominican administration has prolonged the deliberation. And the wait has deepened suspicions that authorities here don't really want a definitive answer for fear of losing tourist dollars. The mammoth lighthouse mausoleum said to house Columbus's remains draws schoolchildren and foreigners alike.

Even those who favor letting modern science settle the matter are loath to concede that they might have invested millions in a case of mistaken identity.

"The researchers should have access. We firmly believe that part of the remains of Columbus are here. That should be proven once and for all to put an end to these polemic debates," Foreign Minister Carlos Morales Troncoso said of conflicting claims by Spain and the Dominican Republic that each possess Columbus's remains.

In June 2003, the Spanish scientific team, headed by forensic expert Jose Antonio Lorente, gained unprecedented access to a crypt in the Spanish city of Seville long believed to contain the remains of Columbus. They extracted genetic material from finger-bone fragments and sought to match the DNA samples with those taken from the bones of Columbus' s brother, Diego, and other remains, suspected to be from his son Hernando, both buried in Seville. But the results were inconclusive.

In October, the researchers renewed an earlier petition to the government in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, in hopes of finding more intact samples in the chest-like tomb that Dominicans claim holds Columbus's remains. Their request was rejected.

Before a change in the Dominican government last year, the Spanish researchers were told they could examine the remains once the Seville tests were concluded. A Feb. 15 date was set by a now-defunct commission. Then, in late January, Puig's office announced that more discussions would be necessary before the crypt could be opened.

Confusion over which country -- if either -- has the remains has persisted for more than a century.

Columbus died May 20, 1506, in Valladolid, Spain. And he was buried there, despite having written in his last will and testament that he wanted to be interred in his beloved Hispaniola, the name he gave to the island, now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, when he first saw it in 1492.

In 1537, Columbus's widowed daughter-in-law, Maria de Toledo, sailed here with her husband's remains and those of the disinterred explorer. Both were entombed at the newly completed cathedral, where they remained until Spain ceded Hispaniola to France in 1795.

Before the French took over, a royal Spanish delegation came to evacuate national treasures, including what they thought were the Columbus crypts, to Havana, then the center of Spain's colonial dominion. When Cuba won independence in 1898, the remains were relocated to the cathedral of Seville.

Meanwhile, during renovations at the cathedral in Santo Domingo in 1877, workers discovered an unmarked metal trunk hidden behind a wall. Inside were the bones of a tall person and an inscription: "The Illustrious and Distinguished Baron, Don Cristobal Colon," the Spanish name of the lanky explorer.

Spain's ambassador in Santo Domingo, Maria Jesus Figa Lopez, declined to intervene with a formal government request for access. The absence of official backing means that Dominican authorities have no guarantees the work will be conducted as agreed, Dominican government spokesman Roberto Rodriguez Marchena said.

Although the Faro a Colon lighthouse mausoleum is an important stop on the tourist road through colonial Latin American history, Rodriguez Marchena said it had also been an albatross around the neck of every Dominican government for nearly two decades.

"No government has been able to exercise any control over the Faro. It's a power unto itself," he said. "There are still a lot of discussions about it because the government of President Leonel Fernandez believes we should have other priorities, like the fight against poverty. . . . Amid the power outages we are experiencing, it's a bad political move to be lighting up this monument for the entertainment of tourists."

The 157 high-powered beacons that project a giant cross onto the night sky are lighted for holidays and special occasions, such as the passing of a cruise ship, Faro administrator Andy Mieses said.

Mieses said he is convinced that his country has the real remains of Columbus and that further testing would be unnecessary and intrusive.

"There are religious considerations, as the tomb is in the custody of the cathedral. The sole key is in the hands of the cardinal," Mieses said of Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez.

The Faro a Colon lighthouse mausoleum is popular with tourists, but whether it actually houses the explorer's remains is unknown.