Thursday, September 10

Tourism in Italy - Petroleum or Quicksand?

Italian Customer Service (see sign upper left) - in the old Stazione Tiburtina
Just ask the guy on the floor for info, or... pray.

 A lot had been made awhile back over the Japanese tourists who got taken for a ride in Rome at the Passetto ristorante near Piazza Navona:  They were overcharged for every item on their meal, and then the proprietor added a random 135 euro tip for his efforts.  In typical Italian fashion, the restaurant was shut down until the dust settled, and reopened a few days later – just in time for them to pull the same trick on another young Japanese couple. They learned their lesson, though – they did not put in a line item called tips, but changed it to 84 euro in misc. taxes. So much for repentance. The Japanese press had a field day -- so much so, Italy's Minister of Tourism offered to have the travelers back...(at taxpayers', not the Passetto's expense--they demurely declined the invitation).

In fact, while millions each year have a wonderful holiday in the Bel Paese, the more vocal ones will often admit that the country was sensational, the food and people even better, but the hassles of navigating the constant barrage of ripoffs were frustrating at times. Sometimes, if you visit travel Forums, you’ll find the odd person who says, “Never again.”

My sister has been coming to Italy since she was 2 years old. Since she was 16, it’s a biannual occurrence, never faltering even after the birth of four children. She loves this country, speaks the language, and will continue to come back (except Venice), as I’m sure will her kids. She knows to expect the almost daily ripoffs as part of your tourist experience. This particular summer she spent a phenomenal 40 days traveling through Italy – this is a brief recount of some of the ways Italy is a bit less hospitable. (see Tante Belle Cose for the great parts):

- Contacting the luxury homes to rent in the center of Florence, the place they rented 2 years ago responded to her emails after 3 weeks’ time and after they had already negotiated on a wonderful flat – and it was even less. With a family of 6, in Italy, they are often quoted a per person fee, rather than a per room charge, which could signify upwards of a $450 per night price tag on a room with 2 beds anyway. In the end, the agency came up with a series of excuses so as not give her back her deposit on the apartment. She is still waiting to see if the money will be credited back to her account.

- They rented a car to visit Volterra, where they had filmed the Twilight sequel. The gas gauge was broken, so, they actually had no idea how much gas was in it to start, and were worried they’d be charged extra for filling the tank when they returned the car. In fact, from the amount of money they put into the tank, it would appear the car was given to them on empty. Naturally, there was no way to return the car after hours, and they hoped that they would not be charged an extra day as a result. They are still waiting for their credit card bills to verify all charges.

- In Venice, of course, you are forced to pay close to $100 in advance for a 30 minute gondola ride. The thing is, the gondolier pulls in after only 20 minutes, and you cannot protest nor get a refund on being shorted your ($33) 10-minute excursion.

- In Rome, she pulled out a 5 euro bill to purchase three €1 bus tickets. The tickets were marked in large red print, 5 euro, but as a promotion for Zoomarine, although this was unclear. The cashier told her it would be 15 euro. She asked, for 75 minute tickets?? Sì. 15 euro later, she had her three 1 euro tickets and change from a 20 euro bill.

- Travelling to Sicily, they needed to pay (cash) for their beach apartment, which was exceptional in every way. They decided to change their dollars at a local bank. The first bank wouldn’t change their money because they didn’t know them. The second wouldn’t change their money in its entirety, and so on, until they finally managed – going to three towns in over 3 hours -- to change their (obviously laundered) dollars.

- On Lake Turano in the Sabine hills, the proprietor was too busy chatting with his buddies to rent out peddle boats. The only tourists there, after about 20 mins, we finally pleaded with him to let us take them out.

- Back in Abruzzo, the kids couldn’t wait for their biannual pilgrimage to the Roccaraso crepe man. Obviously angry they asked for crepes, he refused to hand over extra plates or napkins (try that with nutella!).
- At the wonderful family movie theater there, there were no reduced prices for young children. She managed to convince them to give her a discount, and, in a case of showing true Italian hospitality (and recognizing that 4 children families are a rarity in Italy), they obliged her for the two youngest.
- The fully equipped and excellent service provided by the tourist office was great, except that it’s hidden away in a Comune office or library, far away from the spots where a tourist might actually be seeking information; although there were plenty of cute wooden shacks lining the main strip, calling themselves Tourist Information – all closed.

- To meet my sister, I arrived by train to Sulmona, to take a fabulous bus service to Roccaraso. Run by the FS, by the looks of it, I was unsure whether I was actually getting a lift, or getting kidnapped (having jumped in an unmarked van with two guys and a piece of paper stuck in the window indicating the wrong destination). Although they arrived late, I arrived early to my destination – faring better than the English couple who had tickets for a similar service; the locals told them the service no longer exists and they ended up calling a taxi (the newsstand guy took pity on them, after the FS ticket guys feigned ignorance, and made the call for them).

- Attempting to enroll her youngest in a Summer Campo Sportivo, she called the number posted on (the few) posters there. The woman said she had nothing to do with it, couldn’t give us information and never called back to give us the number of her business partner. Despite sending various sms messages, we never got a call back and we never did enroll Luca in tennis camp.

- The fireworks displays (usually something that children enjoy), scheduled for 9pm, were stunning – but the show went on well after midnight.

- Following signs for the Giornate Medioevali in Fornelli (Isernia), we arrived to discover that events took place at night (perhaps Notti Mediovali would have been more appropriate?).
True to form, most promotional posters of events across the country do not indicate phone numbers, websites or tourist info like starting times on them, so, it was truly anyone’s guess. We used internet and read articles about past events in order to get the idea; migrating to google maps to identify the locations.

- After an amazing day going up to the awesome tourist stop, la Grotta del Cavallone, we had to take the lifts back down. Waiting our turn, the kids were greeted to the monty of Italian women – nude posters straight out of a Harley mechanic's garage -- in full view. Enjoy your trip!

- Finally, on her way out of Rome, ordering a taxi to the airport, the taxi arrived with 12 euro on the meter (we had reserved ahead of time and after much pressing to get the fee base straight, were told they are not allowed to do that – information given begrudgingly by the taxi operator). Stating that we called for 5am and not 5:15, he refused to start the meter over. At an extra 8 euro per passenger, these fees do, indeed, add up to huge profits for the drivers.

Not a day goes by without a politician or business person acknowledging that Tourism is Italy’s Petroleum industry. By the looks of it, at times it would seem that Italians in the tourism industry are digging for their petroleum using sandbox shovels.


cuz liz said...

Talk about needing a vacation after your vacation!

Again, I must ask why Italians think only Americans represent greed? They need a mirror. Don't get me wrong. Italy is a beautiful place to visit, and you do find some lovely people. But the extent to which so many go in order to screw whomever helps them make a living is just pure and simple greed.

I'm sure it happens everywhere so some extent. Unfortunately, Italians have the reputation of raising it to an art form, though unworthy of appreciation.

Peter @ italyMONDO! said...

Looks like your sister really got around!!!

When will these Italians learn? It's a shame, but I learned that it stems a lot from an embedded sense of opportunism.

Dave514 said...

Speaking of opportunism, Il Duce did it again, "I'm the greatest PM Italy has ever had!!!" He really is the Psycho-dwarf. He's fast making my favourite country to visit the laughingstock of the world.

As far as being taken in Italy, the one and only time was in that restaurant on the Piazza della Republica. They overcharged me for a bottle of wine. Besides the food was noticeably mediocre.

cuz liz said...

I'm sure a sense of humor always helps. Anyone who travels knows to expect some hoodwinking.

I never had anybody steal my wallet or other items (toccaferro), but a photo shop in a town I was working in only gave me 5 photos and negatives from a roll of 36 (I was furious but I called Ms. Francesca Maggi to tell her to watch out for compromising photos of her popping up somewhere); a waitress at a shop I frequented in the same town tried to charge me for a bottle of water when I received a glass (I put up a stink, called the waitress a liar, then left paying only for what I received.) Needless to say, I never went back and told any Americans I met to avoid that extremely popular shop.

But the funniest thing happened when a pizzeria employee carrying a large vat of tomato sauce dropped it just as I was walking out of an office in Milan. It exploded upon hitting the ground and splashed up covering me head to toe in tomato sauce. Thank goodness I had on a rain parka, though my black jeans did not fair as well. He just stood there, probably hoping I wouldn't wring his neck or have him fired (not like that would happen), then I busted out laughing. He told me the next time I was around I could get a pizza on the house. Never happened.

Irreverent Italy said...

Nota Bene: I passed by the Passetto the other night (Friday, no less) and it was closed tighter than a drum. But, from the looks of it, it wasn't closed in the 'closed down' sense, with police tape and warnings...
Looks like they're taking advantage of their forced closure to remodel! (obviously, they have some extra cash on hand to launder errrr burn...)
Only in Italy...

cuz liz said...

found this regarding the Passetto:

Unknown said...

I think this post is biased.
There are of course many things in Italy which must be fixed, but I think this is true for every beautiful country of the world.
Naked woman behind mechanic's garage?
you're telling me that you've never seen them in other countries? come on!
If we take all the things we don't like of whatever country and put them in a row, as it has been done in this post, the final result won't change.
That said, I am sure you nevertheless enjoyed your stay in Italy. Am I wrong? :-)

Irreverent Italy said...

Ciao Michele,

Thank you for your kind observation: This entire blog is ABSOLUTELY biased!!

The Post was just (an honest) summation of places, on one single trip, where Italy falls short on hospitality. The flip side of our wonderful trip was a few posts prior...

You are very right, each country has its own quirks...and I could easily blog about any of them (especially the USA -- but so many already do).
But, talk to friends who've just come back from Greece, Austria, Croatia, even Morocco and Nepal, and you'll find that 'they get it'. Places banking on tourism take it quite seriously.

You can read about Italy's lack of hospitality in almost every single (Italian) newspaper on almost a daily basis (especially in August). They even report on all of the people on Trip Advisor and Expedia, who make similar claims as mine. But, don't take my word for it, just ask the thousands who purchase fraudulent trips or rent boats that don't exist...

But, having said all that, I've lived here 17 years for a reason!


p.s. please read carefully. The naked women were posted in the middle of a tourist attraction - gondola lift up the mountain -- NOT in a mechanic's garage. And no, I have NOT seen similar in chair lifts in Aspen.

Alex said...

Wow, your sister was treated rather badly. Some of the incidents are quite common here - chatting and insolent staff - more common in south Italy, and even Italians moan about this. Well, those from the north do!

Whereas in days gone past ripping people off was something which could be got away with quite happily, and foreigners are a popular target, Italy will probably be forced to clean up its act as a result of word being spread via the internet. The case of the Passetto is an example of this.

But you do get the impression that if Italians can rip you off, they will try. Though not all Italians are dishonest, enough are and this is not good.

I don't think the same happens in the US or the UK - but then I don't know, I've never been a 'tourist' in either country.

The recent pollution incident involving Naples' famous Blue Grotto is a classic example of Italian short sightedness, as is the sunken ship full of toxic waste which was found of the coast of Italy recently - one of many, apparently.

Tourism is important for Italy, but despite claiming that they no it, Italy's powers that be do not do a fat lot to keep tourism clean.

The internet could kill Italy as a holiday destination. Hope Italy is monitoring its web image, but I very much doubt it.

Your were right Francesca - this is an interesting post.



Unknown said...

thank you Francesca for you reply.
And for admitting your post is biased!
Look, I will now do the same with this comment. It will be biased.
So you found some mechanic's porn on the lift to the Grotte del Cavallone.
Well there are people who spotted this kind of porn in the streets of downtown NY:
Or in this giveaway (hence easily takeable by children) newspaper in London.
And regarding the bad reviews on tripadvisor, well why don't we count the bad ones that you can read about certain hotels in USA, UK, Greece and other countries. They can easyly outnumber, in each country, the ones you can reand for Italy.
@Alex And regarding the attitude of the Italians in "ripping off" people (I hope you don't write it in your books... :-) well I suggest to double check this kind of site, INVENTED by fine USA entrepreneurs:
Shall I say that people in USA or UK are in general lavish and cheaters?

Alex said...

@Michele - I visited the site, and almost could not escape from it! Eek!

Point taken. However, I've met so many Italians who are afraid of being ripped off, that I get the impression that it happens a lot in Italy. And I do have some personal experience too. Not so much of rip offs, as sharp business practice.

Back in the UK my English friends were nowhere near as worried about being ripped off. I have also noticed that the Italian concept of honesty differs from my own, and from that of other English people and Americans I know.

Different culture, I guess.



Unknown said...

@Alex I honestly think it is mainly a "feeling" due to cultural differences. When you are a stranger, you tend not to feel as secure as if you were in your home country. And of course you are more subject to attacks by cheaters...
Look, in the place where I live (Termoli, CB) I don't fear being ripped off nor I know people who in general are frightened.
I do know people who do not trust the judicial system (because it's slow and not efficient) in case they are ripped off, but that's another story.
I remember very well, instead, that when I was a boy I had very bad experiences (aggressions and pickpocketing) while having a holiday in London.
But again, that was a very personal experience and I do not make it a general case.
all the best,

Irreverent Italy said...

Gentlemen -- I think it happens everywhere. Probably moreso in the USA, since we're more people (after all, I'm sure we invented spam, hacking, and pirated copies)...
The difference have recourse.
Claims, courts, and closures.

But, when it comes to tourism, I'm convinced that Americans, in the end, really wanna make a buck. That's why they turn over tables at restaurants, let you return items, and generally, run after your tourist dollar.

Irreverent Italy said...

P.S. I went back to my Tante Belle Cose entry for August. Not one single comment.
So, must good news always go unreported???

Anonymous said...

We were happily sold first class tickets from Rome to Siena (thru Chiusi) even though the train didn't HAVE a first class! I'm sure they're well aware of this little detail...

Jacques Steyn said...

My girl friend and I wanted to see the David in Firenze, and we decided to book tickets online.

I made a booking request with for 12:00 Saturday 7 November.

By Saturday morning 8:30 AM, they still have not confirmed yet, so I sent an email canceling the request, as we were leaving by train to Firenze and would not have internet access again.

That evening when I retreived my emails, I noticed an email from, with a confirmation -- 11/7/2009 10:26 AM -- 2 hours after my cancellation email.

They now refuse to acknowledge the cancellation and processed Euro40 from my credit card.

I find this kind of service unacceptable, and wish to report them.

Jacques Steyn