Coronavirus spread takes a toll on Italy’s tourism industry

As Italy reported more than 1,128 confirmed coronavirus cases – the most outside Asia and 29 deaths, nations imposed travel restrictions for their citizens visiting Italy.

The U.S. State Department issued a level three travel advisory – the second-highest level of warning – for the whole of Italy late Friday, saying that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended “avoiding nonessential travel.”

Other major countries have issued warnings for only defined areas of northern Italy where most cases of the new coronavirus are clustered.

The virus spread has taken a toll on the nation’s tourism industry.

More than 5.6 million Americans visit Italy every year, the second-largest national group behind Germans, according to the most recent statistics. They represent 9% of foreign tourists in Italy, and are among the biggest spenders at an average of 140 euros a day for a collective total of 5 billion euros a year, the hotel federation Federalberghi said.

“We had already registered a slowdown of Americans coming to Italy in recent days,” Federalberghi President Bernabo Bocca said in a statement. “Now, the final blow has arrived.”

The Assoturismo Italian tourism federation was already warning that the sector that is responsible for 13% of Italian GDP risked collapse from the virus outbreak’s impact on travel.

March bookings were down 90% in Rome and 80% in Sicily, Assoturismo said, referring to parts of Italy largely untouched by the virus so far. The industry federation estimated that canceled reservations for March would cause 200 million euros in economic damage – and that was before the U.S. upgraded its advice on traveling to Italy.

“This is the darkest moment. Not even September 11 hit so heavily,” the federation’s president, Vittorio Messina, said, referring to the 2001 terror attacks in the United States.

Virus cases in Italy exploded from a handful to hundreds after infection clusters emerged in the Lombardy and Veneto regions on Feb. 21. Venice, the Veneto region’s capital, was recovering from a tourist lull tied to record flooding in November when officials canceled the final two days of Carnival celebrations this week because of the virus. Bookings dropped immediately

The Italian government late Friday took action to help the tourism industry, such as delaying deadlines for tax payments and a moratorium on industry mortgages.

The hotel federation’s Bocca called the measures insufficient and asked all levels of government to adopt urgent measures to guarantee cash flow to tourism operators to protect jobs and avoid “the collapse of an industry” that operates 300,000 businesses and employs 1.5 million people.

Veneto and Lombardy – dual engines of the Italian economy – remain the hardest hit. Eleven towns, all but one in Lombardy, have been locked down, blocking the movements of more than 50,000 people living and working an hour’s drive from Italy’s financial capital, Milan.

Both regions also closed schools, museums, theaters, cinemas and most public offices, emptying urban centers like Milan, where many companies permitted office workers to telecommute.

Some neighborhood restaurants and shops remained shuttered, and even those that opened had just a handful of tables. The regional train company, Trenord, said its weekday ridership had been 40% of normal.

One Milan restaurant, la Rava e la Fava, put an ad in the local section of the daily Corriere della Sera newspaper to entice clients back. Under the words “Kill Virus” and a photo reminiscent of Uma Thurman’s character in “Kill Bill,” the tongue-in-cheek ad called for “rationality,” and underlined the restaurant’s exemplary hygiene.

“In nearly 15 years of business, we have never sneezed on anyone, nor will we ever, because that is how our grandmother taught us,” the ad read. It signed off: “A safe place.”