Rome (AFP) – Italy reopened to travellers from Europe on Wednesday, three months after going into coronavirus lockdown, but sparse arrivals dimmed hopes of reviving the key tourism industry as the summer season begins.
Gondolas are ready to punt along Venice’s canals, lovers can act out “Romeo and Juliet” on Verona’s famed balcony, and gladiator fans can pose for selfies at Rome’s Colosseum.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the country was clearly on the mend, adding latest contagion data was “encouraging.”
“There’s enthusiam in the air, a renewed sociability. We deserve to smile, to be cheerful, after weeks of great sacrifice,” he said, adding the time had come to lure tourists back.
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio urged European countries to open their borders too.
“We are waiting for reciprocity from all European countries,” the minister told a press conference.
Austria and Switzerland are keeping their frontiers with Italy shut.
There were also fears many are hesitant to come to a country like Italy still shaking off a vicious pandemic.
“We hoped to see some movement from today, but have no foreign tourists booked in for this week or next,” said Alessandra Conti, a receptionist at the Albergo del Senato hotel which overlooks the Pantheon in Rome.
“We’ve got a few reservations from mid-June… (but) are still getting lots of cancellations for this summer”.
Italy was the first European country to be hit hard by the coronavirus and has officially reported more than 33,500 deaths — the third highest toll in the world.
It imposed an economically crippling lockdown in early March and has since seen its infection numbers drop off dramatically.
With the country facing its deepest recession since World War II, it needs a swift return of foreign tourists.
But it is still reporting hundreds of new cases a day, particularly in the northern Lombardy region, and experts warn Rome may be moving too quickly in permitting travel between regions and abroad.
Infectious diseases expert Massimo Galli said it would have been better to wait until July to reopen the borders.
The virus “smoulders under the ashes, and when it finds the ideal conditions, it explodes. Even more so if we lower our guard,” he said Wednesday.
‘Like a leper’
International flights into Milan, Rome and Naples increased, with a few also coming into smaller, regional airports.
German Regina Oswald, 53, was one of the very few foreign tourists to be spotted in Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square.
“It’s fantastic to see Venice without a lot of people, it’s the one time in my life I can enjoy it like this,” said Oswald, who arrived early Wednesday for a three-day stay.
“I am worried about the virus, but will take precautions”, she said, such as always eating at outdoor tables in restaurants.
Italy fears those who usually travel in by car, train or ferry may holiday elsewhere.
Switzerland has warned citizens going to Italy they will be subject to “health measures” on their return. It will open its borders with Germany, France and Austria on June 15.
Austria is lifting border restrictions from Thursday — but not with Italy, described last week by Vienna’s health minister as “still a hotspot”.
Foreign Minister Di Maio had warned neighbours not to treat Italy “like a leper” and will Saturday visit Germany, Slovenia and Greece to try to persuade them Italy is safe.
Lockdown had a devastating effect on Italy’s tourism sector which amounts to some 13 percent of GDP.
Only 40 of Rome’s 1,200 hotels have reopened, the Corriere della Sera newspaper said, and just a dozen in Milan.
Restaurants and cafes have slowly reopened in recent days — but the government says it will impose localised lockdowns if it sees contagion numbers rise.
“Who’s going to come? No one from South America, China or the US. And the Europeans will be scared,” Mimmo Burgio, 62, owner of a cafe near Rome’s Colosseum, told AFP.