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Italy Launches Effort to Avert Potential German Tourist Boycott - 2003-07-11

Local governments across Italy are trying to stave off a potential boycott by German tourists, in the wake of anti-German comments by a top Italian official that prompted German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to cancel his own vacation in Italy.

Mr. Schroeder decided to forego his Italian vacation after Italy's top tourism official, Stefano Stefani, described Germans as hyper-nationalistic blondes who arrogantly invade Italian beaches every summer.

Mr. Stefani's comments in a letter to a right-wing Italian newspaper last week added to an uproar that began two days earlier when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told a German member of the European Parliament that he would be perfectly cast in a motion picture role as a Nazi concentration camp guard.

Mr. Berlusconi's remark and the anti-German rhetoric of Mr. Stefani have caused some Germans to look at Italy with new-found distaste. But others, like Berlin native Claudia Kieffer, say the comments will not affect their plans to visit Italy.

"I've got a problem with Berlusconi, but I also think Italian people have some problems with him," she said.

For the Italian tourism industry, though, the anti-German jibes coming out of the Berlusconi government are no laughing matter. Germans represent more than a quarter of all foreign visitors to Italy and 40 percent of hotel bookings there.

The head of Italy's hotel association says it would be a serious loss if German tourists were to boycott Germany because of what he described as reckless statements.

More than eight million Germans visited Italy last year. And they spent nearly $10 billion. A blanket boycott by German tourists could have dire consequences in a country whose economy is perilously close to recession.

Besides calling on Mr. Berlusconi to fire Mr. Stefani, local tourism officials in Italy are desperately trying to entice Germans to visit Italy. In Vicenza, Mr. Stefani's home town, local officials are offering German visitors bottles of wine and flowers in an attempt to defuse the tension between the two countries.

In Pesaro, where Mr. Schroeder had planned to spend his vacation, officials say they will demand that the Berlusconi government compensate the city for any drop in tourism.

But, despite the fears, there has been no immediate indication of large-scale cancellations. And some experts, like analyst Lorenzo Codogno at the Bank of America in London, say there is no need for Italians to be so worried.

"Tourism is so important that it is unlikely to be undermined by political events, even very important political events," he said. "At the end of the day, even the trans-Atlantic rift between Europe and the U.S. hasn't really had a tremendous impact on either tourism or trade flows."

Many Germans consider vacationing to Italy a lot more fun than staying in Germany. But if they do decide to emulate Mr. Schroeder, who will now spend his vacation at home in Hannover, all they will lose is Mediterranean sun and fun. It will be the Italians who will end up paying the price for their politicians' insulting remarks.