Economic crisis curbs travel by Italians

( dpa )- Foreign tourists may be flocking to Italy in ever- increasing numbers, but an economic crisis at home means Italians are travelling less.

Statistics reveal a sharp drop in overall spending by Italians on travel, according to a survey conducted by Comfturismo Confcommercio , the Italian tourism organisation.

Whereas the number of hotel rooms rented by foreigners in Italy last year rose to 109.5 million, an increase of 1.5 per cent from 2006, the number of hotel rooms rented by Italians declined from 140.4 million to 138.9 million.

The results of the survey provoked discussion among visitors to the ITB trade and travel fair in Berlin, which ended on Sunday.

"I'm surprised figures show a decline in Italians moving about their own country. The Italian zest for travel, what's happened to it?" mused Ingrid Bachauer , 58, a German visitor.

A record 11,147 exhibitors from 186 countries and regions participated in the five-day exhibition.

The daily ITB press bulletin cited Bernabo Bocca , chairman of Comfturismo Confcommercio , as saying: "The market is clearly in a slump, with the situation worsened by a loss of almost one billion euros on the balance of tourism account recorded from Italian tourism abroad and foreigners in Italy."

"The continued growth of foreign tourism shows that our tourism sector is competitive, but the decline in the Italian component underscores the liquidity problems the country is experiencing."

The news of Italy's decline in travel at home stands in stark contrast to its boom in foreign travel arrivals, with more than 9 million visitors from Germany alone heading south across the Alps to spend their vacations in the country in 2007.

"Italy At The Top" was the proud slogan adopted by the Italian tourism board in Berlin this year, with representatives from the country's various regions all clamouring for attention in Hall Number One at the ITB.

Francesco Frangialli , the secretary-general of the World Tourism Organisation, claimed in Berlin that there was a 6 per cent growth in global tourism in 2007, with 52 million additional international arrivals recorded, bringing the total to 898 million.

With rocketing growth in travel predicted, the mood in Berlin has been upbeat this year.

Even so, much discussion has centred on the role of the environment and the impact travel plays on climate change, with numerous forums addressing sustainability issues and the less attractive effects of mass tourism.

Fascinating has been the degree of interest show in rural and community tourism. "We see it as a new form of tourism in India," Shilabhadra Banerjee , a top official at India's Ministry of Tourism, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa . "We are very positive about it."

Some 124 locations in India have been listed for rural tourism projects, with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) involved in a pilot project embracing 36 villages in India.

"Some of us Indians have forgotten our roots in the villages," said Banerjee , noting that 70 per cent of Indians still live in rural areas.

"It's in many of these rural villages that you still have the traditional customs, crafts, textiles, food - you name it, it's all there," he said.

Similar projects are under way in several African countries. Bongani E.Diamini , marketing manager of the Swaziland Tourism Authority, said the European Union had first sponsored a community tourism project in the country in 2002.

"Since then, we've developed eight projects in different communities." he explained. "People from the Netherlands, England, France and the US show interest in such projects. Now, we are looking to the German market," he said.

Some of the tourists to Swaziland were young people - backpackers and adventure tourists wishing to explore the region, said Diamini . "Others come because they are curious to learn the way of life and traditions of people in the communities," he claimed.

In Ghana, similar projects have also being developed. Visitors arrive to stay at humble guesthouses with thatched roofs in Mesomago , a village of 400 residents 50 kilometres from the capital, Accra.

There, they are greeted by a local musician by the name of Bismark and his ten-member-strong Bamboo Band. Some 14 villages in Ghana are geared for rural tourism, and a further 16 are in the planning.

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