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Italy pays its people to go on vacation

ROME, Italy — “Exploit your holidays to discover your unique, magical Italy,” intones Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in a new TV ad encouraging Italians to vacation at home this year.

ROME, Italy — “Exploit your holidays to discover your unique, magical Italy,” intones Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in a new TV ad encouraging Italians to vacation at home this year.

For those Italians still unsure of exactly why they should “discover” Italy — according to Berlusconi, a land not just of “sky, sun and sea but also of history, culture and art — the state has thrown in a sweetener: it will help pay for citizens’ summer or winter breaks by granting “holiday vouchers.”

Berlusconi’s government believes that tourism can be a strategic tool in Italy’s economic recovery, but only if Italians spend money for vacations at home instead of abroad.

The coupons are available to all low-income families, especially those with many children, who wish to go to the seaside or mountains but can’t normally afford it. If the state has its way, visits to sunny beaches or historical cities will no longer be a privilege for the few, but a right of the many.

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The new series of coupons can be used from Aug. 23 until July 3, 2011, though they’re restricted around the Christmas period. The Tourism Ministry has set up a website through which citizens can apply for vouchers and book vacations, choosing from a wide range of offers and staying at hotels plugged into the government’s initiative.

Under the voucher scheme, the state grants a holiday bonus varying between 20 and 45 percent of a predefined budget, which depends upon the income level of the family and number of members. For example, a family of four with a yearly income of up to 25,000 euros ($32,000) receives a coupon worth 1,240 euros ($1,585), of which the family pays just 682 euros ($872) — the rest (45 percent) is subsidized by the state.

If the same family earns more than 30,000 euros ($38,000) per year, then it is required to contribute 992 euros ($1,268) — in this case the state funds just 20 percent of the entire vacation.

The binding condition of vouchers is that they are used in travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, resorts, camping sites and the like that have signed up to the scheme and which now number more than 4,500.

Andrea Cardone, owner of a beach campground in Liguria, hailed the initiative.

“The vouchers brought me 15 additional clients this year, all families with children. It makes me earn something extra and the base of my guests widens.”

His colleague Luigi Piras, who runs a hotel-pizzeria in Sardinia, agreed: “This place is quite isolated and in times of economic crisis even one coupon-client can make a difference.”

But not all types of accommodation are favored. Venice’s four-star Hotel La Fenice et des Artistes, close to Saint Mark’s Square, even with the bonuses remains way too expensive.

“So far none of our clients have used the coupons, I guess Venice is just not a voucher destination,” said manager Nadia Baldissera.

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In August, bowing to pressure from industry, the Tourism Ministry extended the voucher system to foreigners who are residing — and thus paying taxes — in Italy.

“I personally told the minister [Michela Vittoria Brambilla] that it was a mistake to exclude foreigners at the start,” said Christian Seymons, a Frenchman who restyled a Renaissance country resort near Florence, The Hedgehogs’ Hamlet, and has so far hosted two coupon-families. “Now it’s quite late, summer’s almost over and it’s a real pity because 90 percent of my clients are foreigners and I think they should have as well the opportunity to discover Italy.”

The coupon has the goal of supporting what minister Brambilla describes as “social tourism.” When she presented the new vouchers at a press conference in early August, she talked of “high-quality tourism that blends art, history and leisure” saying holidays are “an important moment for relax, physical and mental wellness, social cohesion and cultural enrichment essential in bettering life quality.”

In introducing the scheme, Italy is following the example set by other European countries, including France, where the recent introduction of coupons has led to a 5-percent increase in demand for hotels and resorts. Since the release of the first coupons in January, some 7,000 Italian families have taken advantage, generating a domestic tourism revenue of 5.5 million euros ($7 million), according to data from the ministry.

The vouchers might turn into a helpful instrument to recover part of the money Italians have spent in outbound tourism. Quoting data by the Bank of Italy — more than 13.771 billion euros ($17,606 billion) spent by Italians during their vacations abroad in 2009 — Berlusconi’s office posted a note on the government’s website aimed at convincing nationals to spend their holidays (and money) at home in order to support Italy’s economy and not that of other countries.

Some Italians are favorable to the coupon strategy, others not. Daniele Bolgi, a 55-year-old Roman shopkeeper with four kids, says he will not apply for the vouchers and suggests a more direct means of supporting struggling families.

“It would be better if the bonus went in our salary so we could spend it as best we wish,” he said.

On the other hand, bank employee Maria Bianchi, a divorced woman with two daughters, plans to go to the seaside in September thanks to the coupons.

“I had to spare money last year but now, with the state helping me, I might afford a week of relax with my family,” she said.