Italian tourism struggling


Drawing visitors to a land boasting Roman ruins, Venetian canals and Renaissance art ought to be a breeze, but Italy’s new tourism chief is instead battling funding cuts, vested interests and a slowing economy.

Tourism in Italy – which powers 10% of the economy – showed a decline of 5 to 7% in the summer due to a weak dollar and an economic slowdown, and there is more pain to come, said Matteo Marzotto, the new head of tourism board ENIT.

“This is a dramatic moment,” said Marzotto, a businessman who ran the fashion brand Valentino before moving to ENIT two months ago. “I think 2009 will be a difficult year for tourism.”

Data have shown that tourists are shortening their vacations in Italy, with an average visit of just four to five days instead of week-long stays previously, said Marzotto.

A planned cut in funding for the government agency threatens to make things worse by forcing it to hold off on promotional campaigns at a time when they are needed most, he said.

All this is just a small part of the challenge of promoting tourism in Italy, which has more UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites than any other country but which lags other countries in terms of competitiveness in the tourism sector.

Industry body Federturismo complains that Italy has slipped to 28th place in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of competitiveness in tourism.

Part of the problem is that small towns and regions competing for tourists often run their own narrow marketing campaigns, leaving Italy without a coherent national campaign to draw tourists, says Marzotto.

“There are people who promote their own little towns for their own benefit,” says Marzotto. “If we simply invest in (promoting) Friuli-Venezia Giulia or the lakes of Lombardy then we’ll just create confusion.”

Then are other problems – such as the lack of cohesive national data on Italian tourism, he says.

He acknowledges ENIT’s own name does not help in identifying it with tourism – his own mother initially thought he had been named to head Italian oil company ENI – and hence has begun rebranding Web sites to include “italiantourism” in them.

But Marzotto plays down the impact a much-hyped garbage crisis in the southern city of Naples has had on tourism and says he will push to promote tourism in lesser-known parts of Italy rather than focus on the major cities of art.

“Italy is imperfect and it’s loved because it is imperfect,” he said. “We can’t become the Dutch or the Swiss, we’re Italians.”