Why No One Goes to Naples
New York Times, 11 April 2014
NAPLES, Italy — Spring is here. In southern Italy, the sun is shining, the sky is blue and the weather is balmy. Orange blossom fragrances mingle with wafts of jasmine. The food is good, the wine is inexpensive, the locals are friendly and beauty is all around. But where are the tourists?
The Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, is still a magnet for wealthy Russians and romantic Americans. Yet Naples itself is a tourist wasteland, and the rest of southern Italy is largely vacationer-free.
Only 13 percent of tourists who come to Italy go to the Mezzogiorno, as the south is known. The rest head for the center and north of Italy, or other Mediterranean countries altogether. German airports sent 223 flights to Spain’s Balearic Islands in one week last summer, and only 17 to southern Italy.
Defensive Italians, particularly from the prosperous north, will tell you that no one goes to the south because there’s nothing worth seeing (they’re wrong). But the lack of tourists in places like Sicily or Calabria is indicative of a larger, nationwide failure by the country to take advantage of its most precious resources — in this case, the region’s natural and cultural beauty.
Poor marketing is one problem. The Italian Tourist Board spends an astounding 98 percent of its budget on salaries, with basically nothing left for its actual job of tourism promotion. The Italian government tried to boost interest in the southern region with its $50 million Italia.it website, but it still debuted with glitches and inaccuracies.
Or consider how little regional tourism authorities in Italy coordinate with one another. Years ago in Shanghai, I came across three separate delegations representing the same part of Sicily. They also spend wildly: Until recently the Campania regional authority had a palatial New York residence on Fifth Avenue.
Infrastructure is another issue. Italy has wasted time and money fantasizing about a bridge to Sicily. It was the pet project Silvio Berlusconi would wheel out during every election campaign. Yet high-speed rail services stop at Salerno, just beyond Naples, 300 miles to the north. There are trains in the Mezzogiorno that travel at an average speed of 8.7 miles an hour.
Last year I took a rail journey from the far northeastern city of Trieste to Trapani, on the southwestern tip of Sicily. Once I was past Rome, I found another world.
Metaponto, in the Basilicata region east of Naples, has a five-track, marble-clad rail station, paid for by $25 million in European Union funds. But the last train out is an 8:21 a.m. express to Rome. If you want to go anywhere else, you have to take a bus. Farther south, the small locomotive coughing its way along the Ionian coast has to stop as ice-cream-toting teenagers cross the track on their way to the beach.
Nor are the roads any better. Upgrades on the Salerno-Reggio Calabria highway have been going on for 29 years amid a tangle of inflated costs, corruption and Mafia threats. There are stretches where construction work has had to be protected by the army.
This isn’t a regional failure; it’s a national one. Tourism ought to be to southern Italy what oil is to Norway: a blessing and a source of wealth.
And the south could certainly use it. Annual gross domestic product in the south is just over $21,000 per capita, compared with $43,000 in the center and north. Nearly two out of three young southerners have no job. Across Europe 64 percent of women work; in Campania, only 28 percent do.
What does this sorry tale say about Italy as a whole? Across the country, tourism is going from being a given to being a missed opportunity. In the 1970s, Italy was the world’s No. 1 tourist destination. Today, it has slid to fifth place behind France, America, China and Spain. As late as the early 2000s, 6 percent of the world’s tourists came here. Now only 4 percent do.
It also highlights Italy’s poor state of coordination across sectors of society. Despite still being a major destination for vacationers, Italy doesn’t even have a minister for tourism, as other European countries do. Infighting is the norm. Hotel owners argue with vacation rental agencies. Public enterprises and the private sector wage war. Neighboring regions don’t speak to one another. Do you know why flights and trains to Calabria fail to hook up with the ferries that cross the Strait of Messina? Because Calabria doesn’t want to see tourists siphoned off to Sicily.
Finally, the story of southern Italy’s tourism-fail illustrates the country’s inability to grasp how scattershot public funding means waste, not investment. Since World War II, the government has poured $550 billion into the Mezzogiorno, to no avail. By almost every measure, it is actually worse off relative to the rest of the country than it was 60 years ago.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, can follow through on his promised reforms. The same things that would make Italy good for Italians — efficient transport, lower taxes, fairer prices, respect for the environment — would also transform southern Italy, and the rest of the country, into a paradise for vacationers.