- Update, March 1, 2020:
“Lombardy and Veneto due to the level of community transmission of the virus and imposition of local quarantine procedures.”
The two regions mentioned in the travel advisory are situated in northern Italy, Lombardy, home to Italy’s financial center Milan, and Veneto, which includes Venice. Milan and Venice are both major Italian vacation destinations.
Italy’s number of COVID-19 coronavirus cases now exceeds 1000, the Italian Ministry of Health says, including 29 people that have died from the respiratory virus, the most in Europe. A majority of cases are in the Veneto and Lombardy regions, where some towns in the latter are under a lockdown.
Due to the heightened alert and a drop in travel demand, American Airlines said it was cancelling its flights from New York and Miami to Milan. British Airlines has reduced its number of flights from London to destinations in northern Italy including Milan, Bologna, Venice and Turin. Budget airline EasyJet has cancelled numerous flights to destinations in northern Italy including Milan, Turin, Verona and Venice, and Wizz Air and Brussels Airlines have also cut their flights to Italy.
On Friday, the US State Department raised its travel advisory for Italy to the second-highest-level warning, Level 3: Reconsider Travel, due to the novel coronavirus.
“Reconsider travel to Italy due to a recent outbreak of COVID-19,” the advisory says. “There is an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 caused by a novel (new) coronavirus in Italy. Many cases of COVID-19 have been associated with travel to or from mainland China or close contact with a travel-related case, but sustained community spread has been reported in Italy.”
There is only one higher level travel advisory – Level 4: Do Not Travel.
Italy’s number of COVID-19 coronavirus cases now stands at 650, the Italian Ministry of Health says, including 17 people that have died from the respiratory virus. More than 400 of the cases are in the Lombardy region, where some towns are under a lockdown.
As a direct result of the State Department’s travel advisory upgrade, the International Journalism Festival 2020, due to take place in April 2014 in Perugia, has been cancelled. The IJF is the biggest annual media event in Europe. The 2019 festival had 289 sessions and 631 speakers in the 5-day program. The organizers of the festival published the following announcement on its website.
“We announce the cancellation of the 2020 International Journalism Festival due to the public health risks caused by COVID-19. We know that this decision will cause inconvenience for many and have negative financial consequences for some but we believe it would be irresponsible to act in any other way given current circumstances.
The health and safety of festival speakers, attendees, volunteers, staff, suppliers as well as that of the citizens of Perugia is and must remain our top priority.
We make this announcement today, one month before the start of the festival, because we are convinced that the entire festival community will benefit from an end to the uncertainty. Please note that the festival is being cancelled, not postponed.
The scenario has changed significantly over the past two or three days. Until the middle of this week we were cautiously optimistic that the festival would go ahead as planned. The rapidly deteriorating public health situation has obliged us to take the decision to cancel.”
Alarmed by the virus’s potential impact on its economy, Italy’s government had just made a concerted effort to urge global media to reassure people around the world that it was safe to visit Italy.
At a press conference in the Foreign Press Association in Rome, on Thursday, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and Health Minister Roberto Speranza had met foreign journalists in Rome in an attempt to play down the seriousness of an outbreak of coronavirus, saying it only concerned a tiny fraction of the country.
The Foreign Minister blamed overblown media coverage for travel advisories warning visitors to stay away, event cancellations and special border screenings for people coming from hard-hit northern Italy.
“In Italy, we’ve gone from an epidemic risk to an ‘info-demic’ of confirmed disinformation, which at this moment is hitting our flow of tourists, our business and our whole economic system,” Di Maio said.
“The epidemic of misleading information is doing more damage to Italy than the risk of the virus epidemic itself,” Di Maio told reporters on Thursday.
The spread of “misleading” reports damages not only the fragile economy of the country — that has seen three recessions in just over a decade — but also the reputation of its scientific community, the minister added. Italian scientists are “addressing the situation brilliantly,” while the media scare has blown the situation out of proportion, he argued.
Di Maio insisted that it was safe to visit the country, saying: “Children are going to school in most Italian regions, and if they can go to the classroom tourists and entrepreneurs can still come to Italy.”
Di Maio claimed there was no reason for tourists to cancel visits to Milan or Venice. Italy is “reliable and transparent”, said the minister, adding “we will provide the embassies of all foreign governments with daily updates of the situation and the numbers concerning the outbreak.
Warning against the dangers of spreading fake news about the public health crisis, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told a gathering of foreign press that the economic damage from an “epidemic” of bad information will do more harm than the virus.
Already, the tourist industry has taken a major hit with a surge in hotel cancellations and industry experts worry that in the United States, Europe and the rest of the world, many potential tourists instead of coming to Italy during the next few months may be tempted to travel to other countries and book their holidays elsewhere. Several American university study-abroad programs have shut down their Italian campuses.
According to the hotel association, Federalberghi, hotel bookings in Milan have plummeted to 20 per cent, compared to nearly 90 per cent normally at this time of year, while in Rome – far from the northern hot spots – over 50 per cent of bookings have been cancelled until the end of March.
And the Italian tourism association, Assoturismo Confesercenti, claims that 200 million euros worth of travel and accommodation bookings have been cancelled in March since the outbreak began roughly two weeks ago. The figure, based on data from Italy’s hotels, B&Bs and travel agencies, doesn’t count lost tourist revenue for transport, tour guides, bars, restaurants and shops. Bookings are also “sharply down” until June, reported Assoturismo.
While many of the cancellations were in regions heavily affected by the recent outbreak, the drop in visitor numbers is also hitting areas where few or no cases have been reported.
“In recent history Italian tourism has never experienced a crisis like this,” Vittorio Messina, National President of Assoturismo, stated in a press release. “It is the darkest moment. Not even 9/11 affected it so heavily.”
“The sector – which is worth about 13 percent of Italian GDP – risks sinking”, Messina said. “If the situation of generalized panic continues, thousands of businesses, especially small ones, will first enter a liquidity crisis, then close their doors,” he continued. “We urgently need to work towards normalization.”
Cancellations aside, Italian government officials and tourism authorities fear that unless the State Department issues a new lower travel advisory within a very short period of time, the negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak will persuade potential travelers worldwide to book their summer vacations elsewhere instead of coming to Italy.
Italy was already flirting with its fourth recession since the financial crisis when its fragile economy shrank by 0.3 percent in the last quarter of 2019.
Deputy economy minister Laura Castelli said the European Union should be prepared to offer financial assistance if the Italian economy suffered a major blow from any disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
Castelli told Italy’s state broadcaster, Rai: “There are resources that the European Union can give us in relation to economic events that could lower GDP considerably.”
“Tell your countries that tourists and business people can come to Italy,” Foreign Minister Di Maio, had said to the journalists at the Foreign Press Association, on Thursday. “Italy is safe.”
Unfortunately, for Italy, that message no longer has any credibility.