Don't panic, it's only an earthquake

Beautiful Umbria in Italy is shaken more by the fact that tourists are staying away than by recent earth tremors, reports Anne Hanley
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The Independent Online
ON 3 APRIL an earthquake measuring 4.7 on the Richter scale shook a woman in Umbria out of a 20-day coma. The shock had the opposite effect on what had, until that day, been the convalescent tourism industry in the central Italian region.

A long lull in the series of tremors which began last September and continued through the winter had brought a surge in hotel bookings for the Easter and summer seasons. But as television stations worldwide showed footage of terrified Mass-goers fleeing the Lower Basilica in the church of Saint Francis in Assisi, cancellations began to flood in. For a region where some five million tourists a year supply around 15 per cent of total income, a natural disaster can easily become an economic catastrophe.

"I'd say the cancellation rate for hotels in the region was between 35 and 40 per cent over Easter," said Michele Ravano of the Castello dell'Oscano hotel near Perugia. "When people phone, I try to explain that there's nothing to worry about, but they just don't want to risk it."

In fact, the chances of suffering harm from an earthquake are slim in Umbria, which encompasses not only such tourist meccas as Assisi and Spoleto but also an enormous wealth of little-visited country churches and medieval towns and villages.

Eleven people died in last September's earthquakes, which brought part of the vault in Assisi's basilica crashing spectacularly down, mostly because of weak hearts or beneath masonry which had been threatening to fall for decades. More than 30,000 people found themselves without a safe roof over their heads, and were forced to take shelter in the caravan parks and prefabricated housing rapidly set up by authorities.

What the media consistently fail to point out, says Mr Ravano, is that the area affected by the tremors is tiny, centred on the towns of Gualdo Tadino and Colfiorito in the Apennines, far from the beaten tourist track. Damage to hotels outside that confined area is minimal, he says, a claim which the Umbria region tourism department underlines.

"Outside Gualdo Tadino itself," said a spokeswoman there, "we have not been informed of a single Umbrian hotel which has shut down due to quake damage. The only damage, in fact, comes from cancellations. Some hotels have so few bookings that it's not worth their while opening."

Yet though the tourist industry may complain, and hoteliers make dire predictions for the coming summer, the region itself is taking surprisingly few steps to try to bolster its crucial source of income. Cut-price offers are out of the question - "We don't want anyone to think that we're lowering standards," said the tourist office spokeswoman. The few initiatives there have been to try to lure travellers back into Umbria have been dogged by bad luck. A party of foreign journalists was due to be told just how seismically safe the region was on the very day that this month's tremor struck.

Refurbishment of dwellings and historic monuments is taking precedence over bolstering the tourist industry. "Perhaps it's simpler to get state emergency funds for those other things," said Mr Ravano. In the long run, though, the regional council's priorities might help the tourist trade.

Umbria's cultural heritage department recently listed "very serious and widespread damage" to monuments in the region. "Of the 800 churches, many of them frescoed, in the worst-affected valley, how many will we manage to save?" wailed one official. What he failed to point out was that many of those 800 churches were in a dire condition even before the earthquakes, and the 3.6 trillion lire (pounds 1.2bn) in state funds allocated to repairing earthquake damage may prove their best chance for salvation.

A freshly-restored Umbria may prove to be the best tourism draw there is - as long as there are no more earthquakes.