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As Italy Reopens, Tour Guides Plead for More Aid, and Tourists

2020-06-10 10:29:56

ROME — A few dozen black-clothed tour guides and tour organizers twirled white umbrellas to the tune of “Singing in the Rain” outside the Pantheon, one of Rome’s greatest tourist attractions recently.

The problem was, there were very few tourists.

The Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple, was among a wave of attractions across Italy that reopened this month after the coronavirus lockdown. The flash mob of guides and organizers was one of several similar events held in various Italian cities this week to draw attention to the severe problems caused after tourism — usually a lifeline — was paralyzed by the pandemic.

In the days after some of the first lockdown restrictions were lifted, Italians relished the empty streets, rediscovering city monuments and museums that they would normally avoid because of long lines.

But even as travel restrictions are lifted throughout Europe, reluctance to travel outside national borders remains high. Forecasts for the number of airplane reservations to Italy suggest drops of 95.2 percent in June, 82.4 percent in July and 76.4 percent in August, compared to the same periods last year, according to Italy’s national tourism agency, ENIT.

That is nothing short of a disaster, according to the workers dancing outside the Pantheon, who feel they have been neglected by the government. Many are demanding subsidies for the coming season when most will be out of work.

“Without tourism, Italy dies,” chanted Ilenya Moro, a tour guide in Rome who helped organize the flash mob. After it ended, the participants marched to a nearby square in front of the Italian Parliament to continue making their grievances heard.

About 3.5 million people in Italy depend on tourism for their livelihoods, including taxi drivers, restaurateurs and waiters, hoteliers and the country’s 25,000 tour guides and 20,000 tour organizers. Tour guides and tour organizers often work on a freelance basis.

In 2018, tourism accounted for around 13.2 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product, contributing about 232 billion euros, or around $262 billion, according to ENIT. In 2019, more than 63 million foreigners traveled to Italy, a 2.3 percent increase from the previous year.

This year, ENIT has a grim outlook. Forecasts show a drop of 72.9 percent from May to October in the number of travelers from the United States alone, an important constituency. “Americans tend to be open and easy to get along with, and a lot of them want guided tours,” Ms. Moro said. Moreover, they tend to tip. “But not as well as they used to, money is tight everywhere,” she added.

In April, an Italian hoteliers’ association, Federalberghi, registered a 99.1 percent drop in foreign clients, compared to the same month a year earlier. Representatives have expressed concerns about the coming season.

As it is, only 40 percent of Italy’s hotels are operative, a Federalberghi spokeswoman said. Another group, Confturismo-Confcommercio, estimated that the hotel industry lost roughly €11 billion from March 1 to May 31, roughly the duration of the lockdown.

For Italy’s tour guides and tour organizers, the losses are no less significant.

“I have five children, a wife and am the only one who works,” said Stefano Pace, a tour guide who went to the flash mob in front of the Pantheon. “Until long-haul international flights return, we won’t have any work,” he said.

The government has already allocated some money to the tour guide sector — dipping into a pool of funds that guaranteed freelance workers €600 for March and €600 for April.

“But that doesn’t stretch very far,” Mr. Pace said.

In its latest financial decree, the government promised that it would distribute an additional €1,000 to freelance workers in May, but some have said that gaining access to the money will be unnecessarily complicated because of rules and restrictions.

“This will create situations of difficulty for many who won’t likely be working until next year,” said Giuliano Varchetta, who works as a tour organizer, a job that involves looking after logistics and accompanying visiting groups.

“Tourism is a particular industry, we won’t have a reprise until mass tourism is back,” said Mr. Varchetta, speaking at the protest in front of the Italian Parliament.

At the rally, demonstrators held up signs that read, “The first to stop, the last to start up” and “Italy has no guide.”

One of the speakers, Nadia Cicchinelli, said that even though Italy was the land of Michelangelo and Brunelleschi, the Italian government had spent more time concerned about the distance between umbrellas at the beach than on supporting the country’s countless monuments and museums.

“They only speak of that when they speak of tourism,” she said to cheers and hoots, referring to what she saw as a focus on beaches and coastal areas.

Margherita Capponi, founder of AGTA, a tourist guide union that organized the flash mob and protests on Tuesday, said, “We have asked the government to continue giving us €600 a month until next March, because there is no work.”

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“No one is traveling, Italians don’t want guided tours, and many museums aren’t letting us inside” with large groups, she added. “We’re going to need help until next year.”

To ensure social distancing, many Italian museums and archaeological sites allow a maximum of 10 people per guided tour.

“June is normally our best month, when we work the most, because clients from the United States begin to travel after schools close,” Ms. Capponi said.

But this year will be different.

Since the lockdown began, Ms. Capponi has worked one day — June 2 — taking a small group through the Vatican Museums, the day after the reopening. “And I am one of the few who has actually had a tour,” she said.

To help those in the greatest need, her organization set up an emergency fund for workers. “Some didn’t even have enough to eat,” she said.

At the Pantheon, a few locals wandered inside after having their temperatures checked. The cavernous interior would normally be swarmed by crowds.

A custodian there said that the Pantheon would sometimes welcome 30,000 visitors in a single day, but that’s no longer possible now that only 80 visitors are allowed inside at a time.

“From an economic point of view, for us, it’s a tragedy,” said Azzurra Mancini, a tour guide who had taken advantage of the protest to visit the ancient Roman temple. “The pandemic swept away the city’s thriving life,” she said. “I hope our dear Americans will soon be back with us.”


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