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Italy fights bad press

Government launches programs to convince tourists they aren't being ripped off.

A man walks past the shuttered Il Passetto restaurant in Rome on July 2, 2009. Authorities shut the restaurant down after it charged a Japanese couple nearly 700 euros ($987.70) for a seafood lunch to become an unwitting symbol of tourist rip-offs in the capital. The 149-year old restaurant has served stars ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Grace Kelly. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

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?