Europe feels U.S. crisis in absence of tourism

[29 January 2009]

By Christine Spolar

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

ROME - Americans have gone missing.

American Express has shuttered two decades-old offices in major tourist cities. Taxi drivers are wailing that Americans - and their big tips - are nowhere to be seen. Clerks at Gucci and the upscale clothiers along Via dei Condotti are helping buyers from Russia and China - the only holiday travelers found sifting through their racks one day last week.

“Americans just aren’t here,” said driver Piero Capotosti, who used to draw a dependable income from Americans who regularly flew in and kept his phone number handy. He estimates his traffic has dropped as much as 40 percent from last year.

“They don’t have the money. You can really feel it,” Capotosti said. “Now a lot of tourists are taking low-cost tours or coming from Eastern Europe. We have a name for them: The ‘tight-fisted tourists.’ “

The number of American visitors to Italy has fallen about 20 percent in the past year, according to tourism agencies. That is a painful slide for a country that saw American tourism shrivel after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and never fully rebound.

This latest drop, however, indicates that the travel industry has been hurt by the global slowdown - and Italy has company in its misery. Britain this month is reporting a sizable downturn in visitors in the last three months of 2008. Overall, the number of foreign visitors dropped 5 percent from 2007, but the numbers from North America fell the most - 12 percent.

Data maintained by the Bank of Italy are revealing: The number of American visitors fell from 2.5 million in 2006 to 2.4 million in 2007 to 1.75 million as of the end September 2008. And the number of tourists continued downward through the rest of the year.

The tourism loss has a ripple effect, agents pointed out. A 20 percent dip in Americans can mean as much as a million admissions lost in museum and tourist sites, by some estimates. Matteo Marsotto, chairman of the National Tourism Agency, told reporters in December that the data, with a financial crisis swirling about Europe, are not encouraging.

“There are signs that we may close with a loss in revenue,” Marsotto said. The exchange rate can be blamed in part - the greenback is anemic to the euro - but tourism brokers should better assess what could lure Americans, he said. Expanding religious tours and value-for-money promotions are a couple of options.

The missing Americans are reported here as part of a rising tide of woe in Italy and across Europe. The closing of American Express offices in Piazza San Marco in Venice and near the Palazzo Pitti in Florence was detailed as an end of an era by L’espresso magazine - even though company officials in Rome said the shuttered stores were a matter of cutting cost on rent.

Still, the Venice and Florence offices are gone and, agents there said, the change came in part because Americans are traveling less around a country where prices have risen noticeably since the entry of the euro in 2002. Italy’s proprietors don’t offer the same deals found in other Mediterranean spots - and Americans are clearly counting their pennies, they said.

The ledgers at American Express showed some evidence of thrift: The amount of money Americans exchanged at the Rome office fell more than 3 percent during 2008.

“The American people used to fly here and then they’d travel by train to Tuscany, to Venice, a lot of places. Even in large groups,” said Sabina Presta, who heads the tourism office near Rome’s Spanish Steps. “Now they come, they stay for a day or two. ... We just don’t see the traffic.”

On nearby Via dei Condotti, most clerks smiled ruefully when asked about the long-gone big American spender. “Where are they?” said Andrea Mosso, a sales clerk for the past three years at Prada. “We used to see families. Now, nothing. Those who spend are the Russians and Chinese.”

“It’s a tough time for the euro and a tough time for the dollar,” said Marco Inguscio of Gucci as he handled a sale for a Japanese client. “We’re hoping things will change.”

But Italy’s economy minister, Giulio Tremonti, recently likened the deepening financial crisis, which has ravaged credit supplies in Europe, to being on the losing end of a bad video game.

“As soon as you slay one monster and think you can catch your breath, another one pops up and challenges you,” Tremonti said at a financial roundtable discussion in Paris. “In this crisis, I think I’ve battled at least seven monsters.”

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