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Italy pays its people to go on vacation

Government hopes coupons for in-country travel by Italians will spur economic growth.

Italy
A couple look at the view from Gianicolo in Rome on Aug. 7. Italy is beginning to give out travel coupons to encourage in-country tourism. (Tiziana Fabi/Getty Images)

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ROME, Italy — “Exploit your holidays to discover your unique, magical Italy,” intones Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in a new TV ad encouraging Italians to vacation at home this year.

For those Italians still unsure of exactly why they should "discover" Italy — according to Berlusconi, a land not just of “sky, sun and sea but also of history, culture and art — the state has thrown in a sweetener: it will help pay for citizens' summer or winter breaks by granting “holiday vouchers.”

Berlusconi's government believes that tourism can be a strategic tool in Italy's economic recovery, but only if Italians spend money for vacations at home instead of abroad.

The coupons are available to all low-income families, especially those with many children, who wish to go to the seaside or mountains but can’t normally afford it. If the state has its way, visits to sunny beaches or historical cities will no longer be a privilege for the few, but a right of the many.

The new series of coupons can be used from Aug. 23 until July 3, 2011, though they’re restricted around the Christmas period. The Tourism Ministry has set up a website through which citizens can apply for vouchers and book vacations, choosing from a wide range of offers and staying at hotels plugged into the government’s initiative.

Under the voucher scheme, the state grants a holiday bonus varying between 20 and 45 percent of a predefined budget, which depends upon the income level of the family and number of members. For example, a family of four with a yearly income of up to 25,000 euros ($32,000) receives a coupon worth 1,240 euros ($1,585), of which the family pays just 682 euros ($872) — the rest (45 percent) is subsidized by the state.

If the same family earns more than 30,000 euros ($38,000) per year, then it is required to contribute 992 euros ($1,268) — in this case the state funds just 20 percent of the entire vacation.

The binding condition of vouchers is that they are used in travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, resorts, camping sites and the like that have signed up to the scheme and which now number more than 4,500.

Andrea Cardone, owner of a beach campground in Liguria, hailed the initiative.

“The vouchers brought me 15 additional clients this year, all families with children. It makes me earn something extra and the base of my guests widens.”

His colleague Luigi Piras, who runs a hotel-pizzeria in Sardinia, agreed: “This place is quite isolated and in times of economic crisis even one coupon-client can make a difference.”

But not all types of accommodation are favored. Venice’s four-star Hotel La Fenice et des Artistes, close to Saint Mark’s Square, even with the bonuses remains way too expensive.

“So far none of our clients have used the coupons, I guess Venice is just not a voucher destination,” said manager Nadia Baldissera.

In August, bowing to pressure from industry, the Tourism Ministry extended the voucher system to foreigners who are residing — and thus paying taxes — in Italy.

“I personally told the minister [Michela Vittoria Brambilla] that it was a mistake to exclude foreigners at the start,” said Christian Seymons, a Frenchman who restyled a Renaissance country resort near Florence, The Hedgehogs’ Hamlet, and has so far hosted two coupon-families. “Now it’s quite late, summer’s almost over and it’s a real pity because 90 percent of my clients are foreigners and I think they should have as well the opportunity to discover Italy.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/italy/100816/italy-coupons-travel