Tourism has its defenders and its critics. But like it or not, it has become one of the world’s most important industries, and few major countries are as dependent upon it as Italy. Last year, the Italian tourist trade was worth more than 150 billion euros, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). That adds up to nearly 11,000 euros for every family of four. It was responsible for approximately 3 million jobs, 12 percent of the Italian labor force. Try imagining what the loss of those jobs – or a five-figure cut in income – would mean to the typical family in Barga.
The good news is that the tourism business here, as measured in the demand for scarce accommodations, has never been healthier. The bad news is the word “scarce,” a reflection of the pitiful investment that Italy has committed to an industry that puts so much bread on its collective table. And if the most recent WEF study of global tourism is any indication, the neglect is beginning to take its toll. Overall, Italy staggered in at 33rd out of 124 countries, and dead last among the 15 core nations of the European Union.
The fuller truth lies in the details, and the picture that emerges in a detailed accounting of Italy’s tourism shortcomings is about much more than tourism. It describes an affluent and ostensibly First World nation whose transportation and other public services are at Third World levels (or worse), and whose laws and regulations are so profoundly murky that no one – not even Italian officials, lawyers and judges – can fathom them.
Italy ranks a demoralizing 70th in the WEF’s civic-development rankings, its bureaucratic and regulatory performance dramatically outdistanced by the likes of Honduras (the original “banana republic”) and cocaine-addled Colombia, by impoverished Zambia and Botswana, and by both Morocco and Romania, homelands of thousands of extra-communitari who are viewed as primitive barbarians by the Italian far right and the racist Lega Nord.
Take a train more than 50 km lately? I did more than 50 times last year, travelling back-and-forth to Nice, just beyond the French border, to help out a friend who was ill. The 350-km distance took an average of 5 changes in each direction, and the round trip consumed between 19 and 22 hours. Italy ranks a miserable 55th in ground transportation services, once more behind Morocco, not to mention Namibia, Pakistan, Jordan, India, China and Azerbaijan.
There are countless things in Italy that couldn’t be better: the food, the weather, the history and culture, and above all the astonishing warmth of its human relations. They explain why so many of us who were born elsewhere now choose to live here, and feel a deep attachment to our adopted home. But it is time that all of us, immigrant or Italian-born, asked whether what we love about Italy would be threatened by laws and regulations that make sense, or by public services that actually serve the public.
Frank Viviano March 2007