Italy fights bad press

ROME — In the midst of Italy's peak tourist season, government officials are taking dramatic steps to ensure that Rome's reputation for cheating out-of-towners — and a series of high-profile incidents that have reinforced it — will not cripple the country’s strongest economic sector. 

The incidents have made headlines here in recent weeks. A Japanese couple was given a bill for $1,000 for a simple pasta dinner, while another was charged more than $700 for a carriage ride. A pair of Italian journalists posing as tourists were told that Roman tap water, rated among the cleanest big city water in Europe, was undrinkable and that they had to buy overpriced water bottles. Police report that complaints against taxi drivers and coffee bar owners increased by half in the last year, while petty crime against tourists also appears to be on the rise. The stories couldn’t come at a worse time for Italy, as August is by far the country’s most important month for tourism (last year, August tourism receipts were nearly 12 percent of the country’s annual total).

“In the past, it was often the tourism sector that remained strong while other parts of the economy suffered,” said Riccardo Lorenzi, an advisor to Italy’s under-secretary of state for tourism. “Because of a combination of factors, including the economy keeping would-be tourists at home and, yes, the poor public relations we have had because of these few events, that’s not likely to be the case this year.”

Governments around Italy say they’re doing what they can to counter-balance the bad PR. The city of Rome has set up a program to register bars and restaurants that meet strict ethical standards, and it is funding a special police corps that will patrol tourist areas looking for unscrupulous behavior. The consumer association Adoc has announced plans to create an office to help tourists in the Italian capital avoid rip-offs, while Rome’s vice-mayor has announced plans to visit Japan on a good-will tour. There’s a proposal in parliament to institute stiff fines and jail time for Italians who defraud tourists.

Will it be enough? 

“That is the big question,” said Maris Rossi, co-director of the Rome-based polling firm Opinioni. “The main thing is perception. The vast majority of tourists will be fine whether the government takes steps or not. But if the perception that Italy is tough on tourists exists, that could be enough to convince a lot of people to vacation elsewhere. Italy has had this image for a long time, and these recent stories reinforce it. These steps might help reverse it, but, like they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Tourism receipts have increased every year this decade, but the rest of the Italian economy is not as strong. The country’s economic growth has trailed that of the European Union as a whole in 13 of the last 14 years. And in recent months, the situation has become worse: the economy is set to contract for the second consecutive year in 2009, and consumer confidence is at its lowest level since the euro replaced the lira in 2002. Most relevantly, the number of international arrivals in Italy was down around 10 percent over the first half of the year compared to the same period in 2008, according to World Tourism Organization statistics. The government fears the drop-off, sparked by the strong euro and slow economic growth worldwide, could quicken after the flurry of news stories about tourist rip-offs. This could be the first year tourism revenue has dropped in Italy since 1998-99. 

“People talk about the economic crisis, the strong euro, and now the risk that they may be taken advantage of by locals, and it combines to have a big impact on bookings,” said Fiorella Ferris, manager of the Hotel Liguria in Rome, who estimated her bookings for August were down by about a fourth compared to the same point last year. She said she did not hire an extra worker for August as she has done in the past.

Even a small decisions like Ferris' could hurt in Italy, where tourism receipts added a record $44 billion to the Italian economy last year.