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Italy fights bad press

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

“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.