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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 16:23 GMT
Will tourists flock to Italy?
Tour guides hope the euro will boost business
Tour guides hope the euro will boost business
by Frances Kennedy in Rome

With visitor numbers in a nose dive after September 11th, Italy's tourist industry is hoping that the new single currency will prompt a burst of intra-continental travel to pull it out of crisis.

Cancelled tours, empty hotel rooms and near-empty aircraft have led to appeals for government funding to avoid redundancies and businesses going under.

The hope is that with the new unfamiliar money jingling in their pockets, European visitors will holiday closer to home and learn to spend like the Americans.

Business has been down by up to 50% since September
Business for guides like Tito Mauro has been down by 50% since September
Freelance tour guide Tito Mauro is full of hope.

"I'm hoping that the arrival of the euro will achieve what I have been hoping for years; turn Italy into the equivalent for the EU of California or Florida for the United States, the area everyone chooses for holidays because it has so much to offer," he says.

His words are echoed by Pier Giorgio Togni, director general of the Italian Tourism Office (ENIT), who says bookings for mountain holidays around Christmas are up 20%.

"The arrival of the Euro creates a single market of 300 million people who no longer have to overcome that psychological, not to mention financial, hurdle of changing currencies.

"I have worked in our offices abroad and many of the requests for information were about exchange rates, currencies, whether it was better to take travellers cheques or cash.

"Former French president Giscard D'Estaing once calculated that a German travelling by car to Italy used up to twenty or thirty percent of his budget paying interest to banks, because he or she had to change into schilling, francs and lire and back again. That will be a thing of the past," he added.

Price comparisons

However not everyone is so sure.

Adiconsum, a consumer watchdog, warns that Europeans and people from outside will now be able to assess clearly whether the three day package in Paris is a better deal than the one in Florence and Italy may not always come off best.

"Being able to compare prices will not only empower the traveller, but we hope it will stimulate competition," said Adiconsum director general Paolo Landi.

"It may even be an incentive to operators to lower their prices slightly. That could also compensate in some ways for the risk that rounding up leads to hidden prices rises," he added.

Many Italian businesses have signed a pact not to alter their price lists to avoid inflation but some consumer groups warn that the temptation of using the changeover to boost the cost of a gondola ride or a bus trip may be too strong.

They are also concerned about how well prepared the service sector is.

Taxi meters

In October the bulk of Rome's 6,000 taxis had not yet had their meters updated to calculate in Euro and many restaurants and bars were still struggling with new software.

The most obvious losers will be the change bureaux.

The major operators, such as Thomas Cook, for whom money changing is just a segment of their overall travel offer can compensate but smaller independent operators will face tough times.

Border towns such as Ventimiglia or Domodossola are also likely to feel the squeeze.

Tourist tax

Ironically, a proposal to introduce a "tourist tax", to the tune of two Euros a head has recently resurfaced in the Italian Senate.

The idea is to help city councils like Venice, Florence and Rome cover the costs of services more frequently used by tourists than rate-paying locals.

However the idea, often floated in the past, has been criticised as not resolving the problem and alienating travellers.

The Hoteliers Association is fiercely opposed to the idea, saying the collection costs would absorb most of the revenue and it would penalise operators.

They also say even suggesting it is inappropriate when in October hotel occupation in main tourist cities was down by as much as fifty percent.

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