Italian tourist spots hit by economic worries: Holidaymakers alarmed by the economic crisis are deserting their traditional playgrounds, writes Patricia Clough in Rome

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS of Italian restaurateurs, bar owners and hotel-keepers are threatened with ruin after what tourist industry leaders say is the most catastrophic season for 30 years.

The recession in Europe combined with an economic crisis and swingeing taxes at home have meant half-deserted restaurants and beaches and empty hotel rooms. According to the Confesercenti Union, which represents the owners of some 180,000 smaller restaurants, bars, hotels and shops some 20,000 businesses are likely to close, putting around 40,000 waiters, cooks, shop assistants and receptionists out of work.

The effective 30 per cent devaluation of the lire against the German mark, and the long weeks of exceptionally hot sunshine, which normally would have boosted trade, have done little to alleviate the crisis. 'I have never known such a catastrophic season for the last 30 years,' said Bernardo Foderaro, the president of Italy's tour operators.

On top of the bad season come the taxes that these small businesses - long regarded as some of the biggest tax-dodgers in the country - are now being made to pay. Mr Foderaro and Orrico Gaetano, co-secretary general of Confesercenti, are planning to ask the government to recognise a 'state of crisis' in the industry and provide tax breaks and other aids to recovery.

Mr Orrico said business had shrunk by up to 40 per cent in some areas. 'On average one could say it has fallen by between 20 and 30 per cent. The bars and restaurants have been the worst hit.' Germany's economic difficulties following reunification has kept away some of Italy's most profitable tourists. La Repubblica reported 17 per cent fewer Germans on the Adriatic Riviera, their favourite Italian holiday area.

French tourists too have been particularly thin on the ground. The situation has been saved somewhat by the Americans and Japanese who, profiting from the devaluation, have been arriving in large numbers. But other estimates indicate that many European tourists have been making shorter visits than usual, and therefore spending less money.

But the real blow has been the economic, political and social crisis in Italy. Italians make up two out of every three tourists in their own country and this year they have not been holidaying in the carefree style to which they have become accustomed.

Their reserves drained by heavy taxes imposed to reduce the huge state deficit, and fearing possible unemployment and more taxes ahead, many have preferred to rent seaside flats rather than stay in hotels, to cook for themselves rather than eat in restaurants and go easy on the shopping, the ice-creams and the discos. Many people did not go away at all.

What the statistics will not show is how much was due to the collapse of Italy's discredited party-political machines. Many thousands of party officials are jobless and even pensionless now that the politicians can no longer extort money to pay them. The staff - many of them political appointees - of hugely overmanned state industries, quangos and government ministries now fear redundancies on a vast scale.

The disgraced politicians are avoiding fashionable resorts. The lifestyle of the would-be future political class is much more austere.

While the unions may have an interest in stressing the dark side of the season, Enit, the Italian tourist board, a quango which has come in for much criticism from the industry, is presenting a more hopeful picture. By the end of the year the overall numbers of foreign tourists will turn out to be almost the same as last year, predicted Marino Corona, its president. As for the Italians, there will have been a 'slight fall,' he declared.

But the crisis is visible to the naked eye: fewer tourists in the streets of Rome, no trouble in booking hotel rooms or getting a table at even sought-after restaurants. Mr Corona has an explanation: the quieter August was partly due to Italians taking what the trade calls 'intelligent holidays'. This means that instead of taking all their leave in one go in August, they are taking a week or two in the winter, long weekends at other times and only a fortnight in August. Which is good, Mr Corona says, because there will now be more room in August for foreigners.

Interests are changing too, he says. Italy's spas, which have been criticised for failing to adjust to new attitudes to health and fitness, are losing custom (one report said business was down 25 per cent), while the great art centres, like Venice and Florence, appear to be holding well or even doing better. 'There seems to be a trend towards culture,' he said.

One piece of good news is that tourists do not appear to have been deterred by the recent car-bomb attacks, not even by the one that damaged the Uffizi gallery in Florence. On the contrary, Mr Corona said, it appears to have reminded people of the city and its art. Since the bomb, visits to the museums there are up by 15 per cent.

(Photograph omitted)