Italy prepares for summer tourists . . . is the country ready?

Italy’s infection rates are at an all-time low, and regions are rapidly moving to white zone status. Now, the country moves out of its self-isolation in a hurting economy eager to welcome tourism.

“Enjoy this while you can,” chimed the server at my favorite cafe off of the Arno river in Florence, Italy. As he placed an espresso and cappuccino on the table, he turned to the street and said, “Before coronavirus, you could not walk through the street without bumping into someone. So many people, I could not catch a breath.”

In caution, the server admitted, “We love Americans, but we’re enjoying our city.” I smiled, but understood the complicated dance when it comes to some US tourists who bring their privilege with them.

The server’s admittance is what I would call, the bittersweet relationship that Italians have with tourists. Italy is one of the most visited countries. With its old-world architecture, picturesque towns and award-winning culinary tradition, the country’s reputation is a popular destination. But, the mileage from the millions who trek through the country comes at a cost.

In Florence, where I lived for almost two years, at its height, 18 million visitors traversed through its small corridors, hundreds of modest-sized sites, art installations and expansive plazas. Yet, the local population numbers about 250,000. The presence of millions changes the social and economic infrastructure of the city.

The tours through the Uffizi gallery were almost like herding cattle. You couldn’t catch your breath, nor properly enjoy a piece of artwork for too long because another tour group was on your heels.

For the server, he had not been able to traipse through a museum or the numerous galleries dotting through Florence because there were just too many people. At the same time, for most sites, the locals deferred to tourists much like the Caribbean where the most coveted beaches and best dives are given to visitors. 

Danilo, a driver in the Naples Metropolitan area, echoed the same thing that the Florence server lamented to me days before.

“I took my family to the Colosseum in Rome. It only took one minute to get in. Before it would take hours. Finally, I was able to enjoy Rome with my family, but it was just too quiet.”

Danilo said that Naples’ business around tourism came to a screeching halt, but the locals were able to relish in the richness of their city that they shared for decades.

Clearing the waters

A port city, Naples has a wonderful citywalk along the water. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers

While the Italians began to notice the shift, pollution reduced throughout the country. Waterways began to clear. Most noticeably were the canals in Venice. The absence of the toll of foot traffic and travelers, and gondolas and river boats clogging the waters, gave the waters a reprieve it needed. Within a couple of months, the murky currents in Venice became a luminescent blue at some points of the world-famous lagoon.

In Florence, the Arno was brackish brown, marked by points of green algae. Today, two bridges west of Ponte Vecchio, the water teases the eyes with dashes of blue.

Even the noise that once became the backdrop of high-trafficked cities showed a more serene rhythm. At one point, I could hear the late-day chatter of locals during an aperitif that was two blocks away.

But being in the calm was one of the few benefits. In the noise were the silent shuttering of hundreds of businesses that could not withstand the complete loss of tourism dollars.

“Before coronavirus, I stood outside and there’d be thousands of people walking by my shop every day,” said Marco, a leather merchant in the heart of Florence. “I’d only approach Americans. Why? Because they pay.”

But now the local honeymoon is over. Italians who rely on tourism are anxious to get back to work. “It has been difficult for us. I rely on tourists from the US and Australia,” said Danilo.

. . . .

Before the epidemic 17 percent of Italy’s GDP was in tourism. Many tourists are from the US. Moreover, it is a large site for the Italian diaspora with estimates that 1 in 20 Americans are of Italian descent. So the flow back to Italy decades after Italians became enterprising US citizens is part of the huge annual visits. Notwithstanding, Italy’s position in fashion, culture and history also play a part in the world’s obsession and intrigue with the southernmost country in Europe

While the US has officially opened, and millions are itching to visit Italy, both must get ready for the cultural re-orientation in a post-pandemic world. On Italy’s side, the pre-pandemic “bad Italian” and loud American might be the last thing to worry about.

Noted as a country who had some of the most intense quarantine restrictions, Italy’s complicated colored-zone system and even more complex government causes the country’s regulations around COVID-19 safety to run hot and cold every other week. The on-again, off-again bureaucracy will be hard to navigate for tourists if they are not tuned into local news. 

Of more concern, while Italy will require COVID-19 tests or vaccinations, the Yahoo cowboy Americans who rejected masks or any protocol might come at a clash for Italians who have been adamant about decreasing infection—especially for Italy who lags behind on jab numbers.

But because many of the visitors are from the US, the dance with Americans will likely start in July.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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