Italy’s economy suffers as tourist gems become ‘dead cities’

Italy's economy suffers as tourist gems become 'dead cities'
A key sector for Italy is collapsing due to the pandemic. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP
Just over a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, Venice remains a ghost town. Portofino, a colourful playground for the jet-set on the Ligurian coast, and Varenna on the shores of Lake Como are also deserted. The coronavirus has taken a heavy toll on tourism in Italy.

Italy is the world’s fifth-most visited destination – and with a third wave now under way, there is no obvious end in sight to the tourism crisis the country faces.

The collapse in the number of tourists to Italy was jaw-dropping last year, with only 25.5 million foreign visitors spending at least one night in the peninsula, versus 65 million in 2019 – a drop of more than 60 percent.

That corresponded to revenue of only 17.45 billion euros, 26.85 billion euros less than the prior year, according to new figures from the Bank of Italy.

“The situation is really dramatic and everything must be done to revive a sector so vital for our country,” said the president of the Italian Union of Chambers of Commerce, Carlo Sangalli.

Nearly 100,000 companies in Italy’s tourism sector are at risk of bankruptcy, according to the research institute Demoskopika, with a potential loss of 440,000 jobs.

‘Even George Clooney doesn’t come anymore’

“The year 2020 was catastrophic for us,” said Marina Denti, owner of a leather store in Varenna, a picturesque fishing village on Lake Como.

She is still sorely lacking in foreign customers, especially big-spending Americans, an absence that saw her turnover drop by 80 percent last year.

“Even George Clooney doesn’t come anymore with this pandemic,” she said, referring to the area’s most famous homeowner, proprietor of an opulent villa on the other side of the lake, in Laglio.

Varenna, on Lake Como in Lombardy. Photo: Brigitte HAGEMANN / AFP

Before coronavirus swept across the country and beyond, tourism accounted for nearly 14 percent of gross domestic product for Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

The collapse of this key economic driver, with hotels and restaurants closed for months on end, helped plunge the country last year into the worst recession since World War II.

‘Venice has become a dead city’

“Deprived of tourists, Venice has become a dead city like Pompeii, it’s sad when you walk down the street,” said Anna Bigai, one of the city’s tour guides, who has only done a dozen guided tours over the past year.

Throughout Italy, overnight stays of foreign tourists fell by 54 percent to 184.1 million in 2020 and the outlook for 2021 remains bleak.

“International tourism in Italy should not return to pre-pandemic levels before 2023,” warned the director of the national tourism agency, Giorgio Palmucci.

READ ALSO: ‘New model’: How Florence and Venice plan to rebuild tourism after the coronavirus crisis

Even Portofino, a popular destination for celebrities and billionaires from all over the world, has not been spared. Its Rolex and Christian Dior stores remain desperately empty, waiting for the return of rich foreign customers.

“In 2020, we had the worst year in a decade,” sighed Emanuela Cattaneo, owner of a wine bar on the port, lamenting the absence of American and English customers.

The coast near Portofino in busier years. Photo: Olivier MORIN / AFP

Still, a few rare foreign tourists have enjoyed the unusual calm. Rainer Lippert from Heidelberg, Germany, came to Milan, where he and his family were admiring the view from the roof of the city’s Gothic Duomo.

“It’s fantastic to be here when there are not so many people around,” he said. “Given the circumstances it’s the best choice we could make.”

Within days of Lippert’s visit, the Duomo was once again closed for coronavirus restrictions.

READ ALSO: How soon can Italy hope to restart tourism this summer?

To try to get things moving again, Italian train companies will offer “Covid-free” high-speed rail links between Rome and Milan beginning in early April, a first in Europe. All staff and passengers will be tested before boarding.

The airline Alitalia launched a similar initiative last year on some domestic and international flights.

Despite current international restrictions on travel – and the fact that most of Italy is currently in some form of lockdown – Ryanair announced on Wednesday that the airline is expanding its summer flight schedule between the UK and Italy.

The Italian tourism minister has expressed that the country is keen to restart tourism as soon as infection rates fall and vaccination campaigns pick up pace. Since plans for a health passport are still in early stages, it remains too early to say yet when Italy’s tourism could re-start.

Find all The Local’s updates on travel to Italy here


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