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The pandemic cost Italy billions in lost revenue from tourism, while giving residents of popular destinations like Rome and Venice a chance to have their cities to themselves
“It’s time for you to book your holidays in Italy,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi told international visitors in May, hoping to revive a tourism sector that contributes 13% of Italy’s GDP. In 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic put an end to most international travel, the country’s tourism revenue dropped by about $113 billion, and things are still far from back to normal.
“Italians go to the beach or the mountains during the summer, and in those areas, things are getting slightly better,” said Giuseppe Roscioli, a hotel owner in Rome and president of the local arm of the hotel lobby Federalberghi. “But historic cities are suffering the most.” The association has used the word “devastation” to describe what the hospitality business is going through. “Half of the hotels in the city are now closed, and most of them won’t reopen until next spring. I am afraid we will be back to the pre-Covid levels only in 2024,” Mr. Roscioli said.
The inconvenient truth is that ordinary Italians loved having their cities to themselves during the pandemic, finally free from the incessant flow of tourists. The Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso has noted that in the modern world, even a tourist doesn’t like being identified as just another member of the visiting pack: “He enjoys watching tourists, and even bemoaning them. He wouldn’t want to be confused with them.” So one can imagine how the residents feel in a city like Venice, where 75% of businesses revolve around tourism.
“Needless to say, the pandemic is a terrible tragedy, but as a Venetian, I can’t deny that I enjoyed that tourists suddenly disappeared,” said Pierpaolo Capovilla, a musician and artist who has been living in Venice for more than 30 years. “Tourism is undoubtedly precious for our community, but at the same time it’s destroying its social fabric, and it’s pushing regular people away,” said Mr. Capovilla, recalling that before the pandemic the number of visitors in Venice had reached “a distressing level.” Meanwhile, the city center, where 50,000 people currently live, is losing about 1,000 residents each year.
The apartment complex where Mr. Capovilla lives with his partner is so full of short-term rentals that tourists often ring his bell by mistake. One morning at about 6 a.m., he recalls, he opened the door in his pajamas and saw two American tourists who had the wrong apartment number. “When I informed them that this was my house, they looked puzzled. ‘Are you sure?’ they asked me, as if I didn’t know where I live,” Mr. Capovilla said, “Well, that captures the general attitude of tourists visiting Venice. I am terribly sorry for the damage the pandemic is causing to our economy, but I certainly don’t miss the type of tourists that seized our town before.”
Venetians worry that things will gradually return to the status quo. Giant cruise ships are already sailing in the lagoon. Local police and civic units known as “angels of decorum” are back dealing with tourists’ bad habits, such as feeding the pigeons and sunbathing in front of churches. “During the lockdowns, there was no serious discussion about the mass-tourist model that is killing Venice,” said Marco Sitran, a lawyer and promoter of a popular ballot to separate the municipality of Venice and Mestre, its twin city on the mainland, in order to better address the specific needs of the island. “Sadly, this is not a city conceived for its residents, but just to promote a type of tourism that will end up impoverishing our city,” said Mr. Sitran.
Marco Pallanti, a winemaker and co-owner of Castello di Ama, an estate in the countryside of Tuscany, has also begun to see foreign tourists show up again. “What we are really missing are the Americans,” Mr. Pallanti said, pointing out that international visitors to Florence decreased by over 60% in 2020.
But he too would like to see mass tourism replaced by a slower, more thoughtful type of traveling. “I would really hope for a deep cultural change in the way we conceive tourism in our county, but honestly I am really pessimistic about it: I’m afraid we’ll be back in our comfort zone once the pandemic will be finally over,” Mr. Pallanti said.
In Rome before Covid-19 struck, the area around St. Peter’s Square was constantly full of tourists, mostly from abroad, with vendors competing to sell them plastic reproductions of the Colosseum, devotional images and overpriced slices of stale pizza. In 2019, Rome attracted 46 million tourists, about 70% of them from the U.S. Italy is now open to vaccinated tourists from the U.S., but only a handful of flights connect the two countries, compared with about 25 every day in the pre-Covid era.
“During the weekend some people are strolling around, but on weekdays the city center is like a ghost town,” said Fabio Gigli, a representative of the urtisti, a traditional street vendors association that for over 150 years has been licensed to sell souvenirs to tourists in Rome.
In the mid-19th century, a Papal decree allowed Jewish merchants to sell religious articles to pilgrims visiting Rome—the only commercial activity permitted for Jews outside the ghetto—and the permits were passed from father to son through generations. Today the 100 or so urtisti are canaries in the coal mine for the tourism business in the Eternal City, a crucial sector that was heavily battered during the pandemic. “The younger people in our community moved to food delivery during the lockdowns,” said Mr. Gigli. “The rest of us are trying to get by one way or another, but I am afraid that without help we’re bound to disappear.”
For the urtisti and the millions of other Italians who depend on tourism to make a living, the slow return of visitors is a sign of hope. But the hope is entwined with a more ambivalent feeling, fueled by a year and a half in which people had the opportunity to enjoy beautiful places normally bursting with visitors. Italians are desperate to have tourists back, but they may feel even more desperate when they actually return.
Courtesy : WSJ