As Europe plans its gradual reopening to visitors from further afield, the battle lines are being drawn between destinations eager to get the tourist dollars flowing.
And in Italy – where tourism represents about 13% of the GDP, according to government figures – one island has stolen a march on its rivals, by going “Covid-free.”
Capri, in the Gulf of Naples, is normally known for its upscale visitors. But this year, instead of pitching its luxury hotels and glorious sea views, the authorities are going for a much simpler sale: that every island resident has been vaccinated.
Last weekend, governor of the wider Campania region, Vincenzo De Luca, announced that the vaccination program was nearly concluded, claiming that this will make the island “Covid-free.”
“We are preparing to welcome millions of tourists and to prevent them from going to Spain or Greece,” De Luca said in a speech on Saturday.
“Now… it is essential not to waste time. The hotel sector must make its decisions by May, otherwise we will lose an entire tourist season.”
The mayor of Capri, Marino Lembo, told CNN that of 15,000 inhabitants, 80% have received the first dose of the vaccine.
By the end of this week, all tourism sector workers who live off the island but regularly travel there, will also be vaccinated.
“It is a very strong message that we send to the whole world – you can come here in total safety,” he said.
Sergio Gargiulo, who chairs Federalberghi, an association representing the approximately 60 hotels on the island, agreed.
“Not only is the island Covid-free, but for customers who need it, we can organize a molecular swab (PCR) and provide the result in time for their departure,” he said.
A devastating year
In 2020, Capri’s tourist sector saw a 70% dip in turnover, thanks to the pandemic, claims Gargiulo. It is a devastating figure for a destination that relies so heavily on tourism.
But the authorities believe that the island has much to offer – especially at a time of social distancing.
“In addition to the better known places, and the famous ‘piazzetta’ where everyone meets, Capri offers fantastic nature trails suitable for the pandemic,” says Ludovica Di Meglio, head of Capri’s tourism department.
Luigi Esposito, a guide specializing in outdoor excursions on the island, says that although Capri is known for upscale tourism, its outdoor trails are a major highlight.
“Capri is not just the baths and the worldliness. Even guests of five-star hotels love to walk – I take them to discover the secret places of the island,” he says.
This week, Esposito was booked to lead a tour in September. It’ll be his first booking in almost two years, he says.
Shots on the seaside
Capri isn’t the only island to step up its vaccination campaign ahead of the summer season. Its neighbor in the Gulf of Naples, Procida – which will be Italian Capital of Culture for 2022 – completed all vaccinations several days ahead of Capri.
Ischia, the other island in the Gulf, is due to complete its own program shortly, says De Luca.
Italy has approximately 30 small islands which go from being relatively uninhabited to tourist hotspots every summer. Most have limited healthcare, and the Italian government has authorized mass vaccination plans for them.
The focus on the islands hasn’t gone unnoticed by those in other tourist destinations. Guides in vacation honeypots such as Venice, Florence and Cinque Terre don’t get vaccination priority.
“They ask me: ‘Why you are fully vaccinated and we aren’t?’ And I reply that, without wanting to discredit anyone, Capri is known all over the world, it has greater visibility. Having Capri Covid-free is a win-win for everyone,” says Esposito.
Speaking at a meeting of the G20 tourism ministers earlier this month, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced that ahead of a European “green certificate,” Italy would launch its own tourist pass by mid-May.
Currently, all visitors to Italy must quarantine for a minimum of five days, but with the pass, self-isolation would be waived for vaccinated travelers and those who have had Covid-19 in the past six months.
As of May 10, over 24 million vaccination shots have been administered in Italy, with just over 12% of the population fully vaccinated.
But according to the latest weekly bulletin of the vaccine commissioner, over 13% of Italians over the age of 80, and 31% of over-70s, are still waiting for their first shot.