Sunday, November 20, 2011

Italy Needs a New Pair of Shoes

Shoes in Bari.jpg

Italy, baby, you need a new pair of shoes. We know that, and we're doing what we can to get you some. But not these, not at those prices. Look: 145 euros is 200 dollars and change. You can't afford them on your own, and there's no way we can pay those prices to bail you out.

--Photo taken Friday night in Bari, the capital of Italy's Puglia region, where I was a guest at a symposium sponsored by the Italian Government Tourist Board and the Italian Travel Promotion Council.

Outrageous prices for shoes (and $800 or so for off-the-rack men's shoes in Rome is not unusual) would be hard to justify in the most prosperous of economies. Italy is just the latest European country to find that consumer spending is no help when the bond markets lose confidence.

One fix is to promote international tourism, especially to undervalued destinations like Puglia, the heel of the boot. Amazing art and architecture have been here for centuries, but to build five-star accommodations you need to create five-star demand, which is why the ITPC brings several hundred travel agents, tour operators and journalists to Italy every year.

These are momentous times for Italy's travel industry. We've commented before on the challenges faced by Italy, which comptetes with Spain, France, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and Morocco for visitors to the Mediterranean. Then the Puglia region, little known outside Europe, which competes with the picturesque Cinque Terre, the glamorous Amalfi Coast, the art cities of Emilia-Romagna, the splendors of Florence, the glory of Venice. Doesn't help that Trenitalia just cut 30 trains a week of high-speed inter-city service to Puglia.

The question is whether the technocrat Piero Gnudi, the new minister of tourism & sports in the post-Berlusconi cabinet of Maro Monti, can do what's necessary to re-energize Italy's moribund tourism sector. His predecessor, a right-wing TV reporter ("Berlusconi bimbo") and animal-rights advocate named Michaela Vittoria Brambilla, was so tone-deaf when it came to tourism that she proposed banning the colorful Palio--run every August on the cobblestone streets of Siena--because it was "cruel" to the horses.

As an industry, tourism is made up of thousands of independent businesses, from hotel chains to private citizens who rent out their villas, from local tourist bureaus to bus companies. (Even stores that sell hiking gear to visitors.) Getting everyone to agree on a strategy and a marketing campaign is like herding cats.

So maybe Gnudi is the right guy after all. Electric utilities know what's happening on the ground level, monitor the output of every transformer at every neighborhood substation. Gnudi ran Italy's NL for a decade, so maybe he's the right man to give the system a jolt. He's not going to worry about horseshoes.

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