MILAN – Italian tourism officials fear a new virus could do more damage to the industry than the Sept. 11 terror attacks as the number of confirmed cases in the country shot up past the 1,000 mark and deaths climbed to 29.
Authorities reported that Italy's total confirmed cases grew to 1,128, a 27% increase from 24 hours earlier. The vast majority are in three northern regions, all economically productive and among the most visited in the country : Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna.
Eight more people infected with the coronavirus died since Friday night, all of them elderly and all in the same three regions, according to civil protection authorities.
The increase comes despite strong measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus — including isolating 11 towns with a combined population of over 50,000. Health officials cautioned that the impact of the measures adopted a week ago would not result in slowing case numbers until some 14 days — the period of incubation — had elapsed.
‘’The cases we are verifying are likely to have been contracted before we adopted these measures,'' said Silvio Brusaferro, president of the national health institute.
Still, the steadily rising numbers were likely to bring more pressure on Italy's tourism industry, a chief economic motor in a country famed for its world-class museums, archaeological sites, art cities and natural beauty.
A U.S. government advisory urging Americans to reconsider travel to Italy due to the spread of a new virus is the “final blow” to the nation's tourism industry, the head of Italy's hotel federation said Saturday.
The U.S. State Department issued a level three travel advisory — the second-highest level of warning — for the whole of Italy late Friday, saying that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended “avoiding nonessential travel.”
More than 5.6 million Americans visit Italy every year, the second-largest national group behind Germans, according to the most recent statistics. They represent 9% of foreign tourists in Italy, and are among the biggest spenders at an average of 140 euros a day for a collective total of 5 billion euros a year, the hotel federation Federalberghi said.
“We had already registered a slowdown of Americans coming to Italy in recent days,” Federalberghi President Bernabo Bocca said in a statement. “Now, the final blow has arrived.”
The Assoturismo Italian tourism federation was already warning that the sector that generates 13% of Italian GDP risked collapse from the virus outbreak's impact on travel.
March bookings were down 90% in Rome and 80% in Sicily, Assoturismo said, referring to parts of Italy largely untouched by the virus so far. The industry group estimated that canceled reservations for March would cause 200 million euros in economic damage - and that was before the U.S. upgraded its advice on traveling to Italy.
‘’This is the darkest moment. Not even September 11 hit so heavily,'' the federation's president, Vittorio Messina, said, referring to the 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
The Italian government late Friday took action to help the tourism industry, such as delaying deadlines for tax payments and a moratorium on industry mortgages.
The hotel federation's Bocca called the measures insufficient and asked all levels of government to adopt urgent measures to guarantee cash flow to tourism operators to protect jobs and avoid ‘’the collapse of an industry'' that operates 300,000 businesses and employs 1.5 million people.
Lombardy, which includes Italy's financial capital Milan, accounts for just over half of the cases while Veneto and Emilia-Romagna have 18% and 20% respectively. Eleven towns, all but one in Lombardy, have been locked down, blocking the movements of more than 50,000 people living and working an hour's drive from Milan.
All three regions have closed schools for the time-being. In Veneto and Lombardy closures also have hit museums, theaters, cinemas and most public offices, emptying urban centers like Milan, where many companies permitted office workers to telecommute.
Some neighborhood restaurants and shops remained shuttered, and even those that opened had just a handful of tables. The regional train company, Trenord, said its weekday ridership had been 40% of normal.
One Milan restaurant, la Rava e la Fava, put an ad in the local section of the daily Corriere della Sera newspaper to entice clients back. Under the words ‘’Kill Virus'' and a photo reminiscent of Uma Thurman's character in ‘’Kill Bill,'' the tongue-in-cheek ad called for ‘’rationality,'' and underlined the restaurant's exemplary hygiene.
‘’In nearly 15 years of business, we have never sneezed on anyone, nor will we ever, because that is how our grandmother taught us,'' the ad read. It signed off: ‘’A safe place.''