Italy welcomes tourists (but the feeling’s not mutual)
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ROME — Italy’s having a party and everyone’s invited.
Aiming to make up ground after the late start to the summer season, Italy opens its borders to all European Union tourists from Wednesday.
But other European countries are being less than welcoming in return, effectively blacklisting states badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic, including Italy.
A patchwork of agreements for the reinstatement of post-pandemic cross-border travel this summer is undermining the EU’s attempts to create an atmosphere of unity and solidarity, and even casting doubt on the future of freedom of movement within the Schengen area.
Italy’s government is furious at the lack of reciprocity and what they perceive as discrimination from European neighbors.
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Italy was being treated “like a leper colony” and warned the EU “will collapse” if countries don’t make decisions together. “The border reopening question requires a European response, because if you countries act alone and in different ways, it will damage the spirit of the EU,” he said in a video on Facebook.
Tourism is a cornerstone of the Italian economy, generating around 13 percent of its GDP and about 15 percent of employment. Travel bans, grounded planes and closed borders helped make the industry one of the biggest losers from the pandemic.
The European Commission recommended in May that countries provide guidelines for tourism to resume, with safety measures for how to stay in hotels, eat in restaurants or go to beaches safely, and begin contact tracing, which Italy has done.
EU countries with similar rates of coronavirus infections and comparably strong health care systems could then lift common borders, the Commission said.
In response, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he would not accept bilateral agreements within the EU, which could give some states an unfair advantage in attracting tourists.
Since Italy began to emerge from lockdown two weeks ago, intensive care wards have emptied and death tolls have remained low, suggesting the health emergency has passed, at least for now.
But when it comes to summer holiday-planning for European citizens, Italy has been left out in the cold. France, Austria, Germany and Switzerland have excluded Italy from an agreement to reopen common borders on June 15.
The Swiss border remains closed to Italians, while Austria and Slovenia insist Italian visitors present a negative COVID-19 test issued within the past few days or undergo mandatory quarantine.
Croatia has already opened its borders to 10 European countries but not Italy. While Greece will reopen to tourists from 29 countries on 15 June, arrivals from badly affected areas including northern Italy will have to quarantine.
Opposition politicians condemned the government and the EU for allowing Italy to be treated “like a second division country.”
Senator and former tourism minister Gian Marco Centinaio of the far-right League party told POLITICO, “The EU’s job is to care for and guarantee fundamental principles such as freedom of movement of people and goods. If there are limitations on movement of citizens of countries like Italy, Spain and Sweden, it means something in Europe does not work.”
He said the government had failed to communicate the improved health outlook in Italy, and lacked the clout to get a seat at the top table with other EU leaders.
President of the Veneto region Luca Zaia, also of the League, called the decision by Greece to exclude northern Italy “absolutely reprehensible.”
“If I were foreign minister, I would be in Athens already,” he said in a press conference.
Di Maio is set to meet his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in Rome for talks on Wednesday, followed by a five-day diplomatic mission to Slovenia, Greece and Germany to try to negotiate a more unified approach.
Some are concerned that other countries see a strategic advantage to Italy’s isolation, hoping to take some of its market share. Italy is very popular with German tourists and has seen a 30 percent rise in numbers in the past decade, especially on the northern lakes and the Adriatic coast.
With the border from Italy to Austria closed, it could be difficult for high-spending Germans to return from Italy. Croatia has been aggressively marketing its coronavirus-free beaches in Germany.
But in the battle for German beach towels, Italy has a powerful ally — Angela Merkel — who usually holidays on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. She reportedly told European Parliament President David Sassoli, an Italian, last week that she couldn’t wait to return.
With Merkel’s holiday at stake, Austria has agreed that Germans can pass through a special corridor to Italy.
Locals on Ischia are eagerly awaiting Merkel’s arrival. As Mayor Rosario Caruso told local media: “We have a special connection with Angela. She has become a friend that we want to embrace again after this terrible experience.”