There's no denying that Italy is one of the countries hit the hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. It was the first European country to report a terrifyingly swift spread of the disease, which overwhelmed hospitals in the northern regions of Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, and Veneto. As the first European country to institute a nationwide lockdown, Italy and its government made a strong statement that the health of its citizens comes before the economy. Other European countries followed, and on March 17, the European Commission placed a 30-day ban on non-essential travel to Schengen Zone countries, which was extended until May 15 and could get extended again until June 15. Most airlines suspended service between the U.S. and Italy.
Now, the country is finally turning a corner. As of May 13, Italy reported 30,911 COVID-19 deaths and 221,216 infections, but the peak has passed, and the rate of infections has slowed. On May 12, there were 1,402 new infections and 172 deaths. On May 4, Italy entered Phase Two of the lockdown, which saw some of the harshest restrictions lifted. Italians are now allowed to go farther than 200 meters from home for reasons of work, to procure essential supplies, to visit family, and to get exercise outside. Restaurants, bars, and gelaterias can open for takeout as well as delivery, and some types of shops—including bookstores, newsstands, and children’s clothing stores—have reopened. Public parks are accessible once again. An estimated 4.5 million Italians have returned to work. More shops, museums, and churches are expected to open on May 18, and in some regions, restaurants, bars, and hair salons can reopen then too.
In cities like Rome and Florence, a sense of cautious optimism seems to be in the air. Last weekend—the first weekend since Italy entered Phase Two—Romans took to the streets on bicycles, stopping to photograph monuments usually swarmed by tourists and enjoy a gelato under the Mediterranean sun. Though many marveled at seeing the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps without the crowds, there’s also anxiety about the effect of minimal tourism on the economy and how long the resulting downturn will last.
The Effect on Italian Tourism
With approximately 4.2 million Italians employed in tourism, the industry makes up roughly 13 percent of the nation’s GDP. In 2019, Italy—which has a population of 60 million—welcomed 216 million tourists. According to the Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, if it wasn’t for COVID-19, Italy might have received 80 million tourists who would have spent approximately 9.4 billion euros this spring. Until Italy reopens for tourism, the amount that the country stands to lose will only rise.
While travelers come from all over the world to enjoy all that Italy has to offer, Americans, in particular, have a long-standing love of the boot. "Italy is the most popular destination for our American travelers," says Shannon Knapp, president and CEO of the Leading Hotels of the World, a collection of top five-star hotels with 60 members in Italy. "They come to Italy for its history, culture, fashion, and obviously its famous culinary tradition. And they love to explore the different regions and experiences Italy offers. There is always something new to explore, so they love to return again and again."
It's still not clear when Italy will enter Phase Three, which is when international tourism will return. For now, anyone who comes from abroad is required to undergo a 14-day quarantine, and flights are scarce. Plus, there are still restrictions on traveling between regions. "I have a feeling that [international tourism] will start again in March or April of next year," says Fulvio De Bonis, co-founder of Imago Artis Travel, which organizes bespoke luxury tours of Italy. "As long as masks and social distancing are required, we can't express ourselves 100 percent. Italian culture is based on contact, above all physical contact. We need a cure, a vaccine."
Though Italy is doing widespread testing for the virus and its antibodies, a vaccine may still be a long way off. Until one is available, the country will have to figure out how to live with the virus while slowly restarting the economy. Unlike countries like Greece or Iceland, both of which have declared intentions to reopen for tourism this summer, Italy is taking a more cautious approach. For the moment, leisure travel is impossible, and lesser-hit regions in the south are mandating quarantines for anyone coming from the north. Still, it’s all but guaranteed that domestic tourism will return before international travel.
The Likely Rise of Domestic Travel
"This summer, we won't be on our balconies, and the beauty of Italy won't remain under quarantine. We will be able to go to the sea, to the mountains, to enjoy our cities. And it would be nice if Italians spent their vacations in Italy, even if we'll do it in a different way, with regulations and caution," Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told Italian newspaper "Il Corriere Della Sera."
Italians typically take off all or most of August. Still, with so many workers just starting to return from furlough, there are worries that they may have to give up or dramatically shorten their summer holidays. De Bonis, for one, is skeptical about a rise in domestic travel due to the economic hardship that so many Italians are now facing.
Still, Italians have always been big proponents of domestic travel, with city dwellers flocking to the beaches of Puglia, Tuscany, Sardinia, Sicily, to the northern lakes region, or mountains like the Dolomites and the Alps. With fewer international tourists, Italians may be more eager to revisit places like the Amalfi Coast and Capri, which have struggled with overtourism in recent years. Whereas in the past, it was almost impossible to find a hotel room available at the last minute in Capri, now travelers will likely be guaranteed to find availability, and perhaps discounts too.
Francesca Tozzi, the general manager of the Capri Tiberio Palace, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, is hopeful that Italians will return to the island this summer. She’s preparing to reopen the hotel in June with enhanced sanitation procedures and social distancing measures in place. She expects to see around 30 percent occupancy, which will make it easier to isolate guests by alternating floors, leaving more space between the tables in the restaurant, and spacing out the lounge chairs by the pool. She and her colleagues at other top hotels in Capri and on the Amalfi Coast are coordinating their reopening dates to send a message of unity and readiness to receive guests.
“It is important to note that for Leading Hotels, Italian travelers are the second largest market for Italy. Our hotels will be well-positioned to capture the domestic drive-market demand that we expect will be significant as the shelter in place restrictions are lifted,” says Knapp, adding that web traffic to the Italian hotel pages on LHW.com is similar this May as it was last May, indicating a continued interest in traveling to Italy.
A European Travel Bubble?
Similar to the Trans-Tasman bubble between Australia and New Zealand, Europe might develop a bubble—or several—of its own. The European Commission has been working to find solutions for member countries, which might reopen travel to each other before opening up to the rest of the world. The U.K. and France have already lifted quarantine restrictions on each other, and additional so-called “corona corridors” are under negotiations. Greece, Cyprus, and Israel are working on a deal that would exempt citizens of each country from quarantining when traveling to the two other countries. According to the Daily Beast, “Malta and Italy have also expressed interest in finding a third travel partner with which to share freedoms—and tourist dollars—with the most likely partner Spain, which, like Italy, has a lot to lose if the pandemic comes back.”
Such travel bubbles would likely exclude Americans and other non-Europeans. It remains to be seen how long Americans will have to wait before being permitted to enter Italy. Of course, given the growing number of coronavirus cases and economic suffering in the U.S., Italians like De Bonis and Tozzi don’t expect to see many American tourists coming to Italy before 2021, even if they legally can.
A More Sustainable Future?
Pre-coronavirus pandemic, some of Italy’s most overtouristed destinations had already started taking steps to regulate the crowds that descend every summer. Venice announced it would be instituting a day-tripper tariff and is now considering capping the number of daily visitors, according to Forbes. Capri banned single-use plastic last spring in an effort to curb the amount of trash left by the 20,000 tourists per day who normally visit in the summer. Fed up with unprepared tourists who need to be rescued while hiking the trails of the Cinque Terre, the local authorities announced steep fines for anyone entering the parks without proper footwear last March. Now, these destinations are getting a much-needed break.
"Sustainability has to be part of the new normal for the future," says De Bonis. "By that, I mean tourism that produces something and improves the destination." He, and many others who work in the tourism industry, would love to see the end of mass tourism.
"Isn't it better to go to Venice and see canals clean?" adds Gregory Miller, executive director for the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST). "It is possible. But you can't just go back to the hundreds of thousands of people that visit in a day and the level of pollution that will occur." He and De Bonis believe Italy needs to pivot toward quality over quantity when it comes to tourism. Rather than having 30,000 visitors per day at the Vatican Museums, for example, De Bonis suggests having 10,000. "They might pay a higher ticket price because the Vatican is the Vatican—it's a magical place, completely unique. People come to Italy to visit the Vatican, and they visit it once in their life."
Concrete plans have yet to emerge, but hopefully, policymakers and those who work in the tourism industry will use this time to formulate a more sustainable model for travel post-pandemic. “How will we re-emerge? This is the most difficult moment, but it’s the moment that will project us into the future,” De Bonis says. “When everything starts again, there will be a Renaissance. We will come out stronger, more prepared, and we will rebuild.”
European Commission. "Coronavirus: Commission invites Member States to extend restriction on non-essential travel to the EU until 15 June." May 8, 2020
World Health Organization. "Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Situation Report - 114." May 13, 2020
Statista Research Department. "Total contribution as a share of GDP of the tourism industry in Italy from 2014 to 2029." Feb. 5, 2020