PALERMO, Sicily (CN) — Last summer with Norway's borders locked against the novel coronavirus, Martin Henriksen Dahl spent the summer hiking across his native country and kayaking in the spectacularly blue waters of the Geiranger fjiord.
“That was awesome because usually the Geiranger is full of cruise ships, but there were none last year so I could go kayaking,” the 29-year-old Norwegian said.
This year the borders are back open in Europe, as they are in many other parts of the world, so he got a ticket to Italy and set off on a month-long solo trip around the Tyrrhenian Sea.
“I've been a huge fan of Roman history, forever,” he said on a blistering hot Mediterranean day after a visit to the ancient cathedral in Palermo. Italy, then, is a feast of history for him.
Backpack over his shoulders, he eagerly pushed on with his trip that will include hikes up Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius and visits to Syracuse, Naples and Rome.
International travel is swinging again this summer in Europe and the opening of borders comes as a huge relief for millions of adventure-seekers like Dahl who've been cooped up in their homes for more than a year.
And the opening of travel couldn't come soon enough for Italy and the millions of workers in its hospitality, culture and entertainment sector. Tourism accounts for about 13% of Italy's gross domestic product.
Last year is being called the “annus horribilis” – Latin for horrible year – because it was so devastating to Italy's sense of being and its cultural economy: Museums, castles, Roman villas, opera houses, art fairs, concerts, local festivities and sporting tournaments were all put on deep freeze to stem the novel coronavirus, which hit Italy first in Europe with horrifying effect.
“The picture that's emerging from 2020 truly is one of an 'annus horribilis,' just as was feared for the past 12 months,” said Federculture, Italy's national hospitality and culture association, in a new report looking at losses sustained during the pandemic.
Spending on culture and entertainment dropped by about 26% last year, the association said. Some venues, such as museums that depend on international tourism, were hit particularly hard. State museums saw a drop of about 75% visitors. In all, the tourism sector lost about 27 billion euros (about $32 billion). The number of international visitors dropped from about 65 million to 16 million.
After the initial wave of infections in the winter and early spring, Europe was able to get the virus under control and reopened last summer.
Despite the opening of international borders, many who rely on tourists are struggling.
“It's bad, bad, bad,” said Enzo Matranga, a long-time balloon vendor in Palermo's central Baroque square, the Quattro Canti, where statues of Spanish kings look on the city below. Spain ruled Sicily for about 400 years.
He said there still just aren't enough people for a pleasant Thursday evening.
“There's nobody,” he said gloomily, peering down the long but not so crowded Via Maqueda, an elegant boulevard that ends with the Teatro Massimo.
The closing of Via Maqueda to cars a few years ago was a move in the right direction, he said. “There are more people, it's good,” Matranga said. “This is better than how it was before.”
With his colorful balloons floating overhead, he waited for the next customer, just as he has been doing for 60 years and as his father did before him.
The bistros, cafes and restaurants on Maqueda, and elsewhere in Palermo's center, are busy, but there are also lots of empty tables to be found during what is now the height of the tourism season.
As doors and borders are opened up in tourist-needy Europe, there is hope for a quick recovery.
The most recent economic data for the European Union's 27-nation single market are hinting at a strong recovery, the ING bank said in a briefing note on Friday. Quarterly economic data shows the EU's GDP growing by about 2%.
“A strong GDP figure confirms that the economic rebound is underway,” the Dutch-based investment bank said. “It can be considered a strong start to the reopening and shows that demand has been very resilient.”
ING said most of Europe's largest economies “outperformed expectations” with Italy and Spain showing impressive growth rates of 2.7% and 2.8%, respectively.
For the tourism sector, it's people like Jean-Francois Lusage and Agatha Cruz, a young couple from Paris, who are going to make the difference.
With new “health passes” in hand, they wanted to get away from frantic Paris this summer and decided to fly to Catania, a port city built in the shadow of Mount Etna, and take a tour of Sicily.
They're doing it all: Visiting old museums, castles, ruins, churches and other nooks and crannies in the island's tortuous and magnificent history. All the while, they're spending on restaurants, lodgings and entertainment.
“We spent five days in Catania and we went to Taormina,” Lusage said. “It's great.”
So far, they said they'd not had to show their health passes. So-called “cartes sanitaire” or “green passes” are digital passports showing a person's vaccination or testing status. They are becoming the norm in Europe, but not required for most activities in Italy still.
“We also have printed copies just in case,” Lusage added, noting they didn't want to rely only on their smartphones to show proof of vaccination.
“In Paris, we have people everywhere,” Cruz said, soaking up the tranquility, light and slow pace of Sicily.
For Dahl, on the other hand, there's a lot of uncertainty.
He hasn't been vaccinated and if Italy decides to make a green pass system mandatory he could find himself barred from many venues.
“In Norway, we haven't been offered one yet,” Dahl said about why he hasn't been vaccinated.
Norway, unlike other European countries, has taken a moderate approach to vaccination, he said. People like him, a healthy 29-year-old, are only now beginning to receive invitations for vaccination.
“It's the right thing to do,” he said. “The vaccine must first go to people who are sick or vulnerable.”
He said he's taking precautions as he travels.
“Using hand sanitizer and keeping a distance,” he said.
If a health pass becomes mandatory in Italy, he'd have to show that he has tested negative every 48 hours to keep his pass valid.
Italy is looking at following the example set by France where the pass is required for entrance to restaurants, bars, cinemas, museums and other indoor public places.
Getting tested every 48 hours, Dahl said, might prove both difficult and unpleasant. Many Covid-19 tests are done with a nasal swab.
“There might be a lot of eating from supermarkets,” he laughed as he headed off to check out the Ballaro market where vendors slice fish, weigh customers' vegetables and are always bantering and hollering among themselves.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @https://twitter.com/cainburdeau
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