Italy is a bargain for vacationing Americans. Not so much

Harris Marley

Global Courant

Woman and child outdoors. Mother and daughter go to rest on the beach. Rimini, Italy.

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RIMINI, ITALY — The seaside resort of Rimini is Italy’s Jersey Shore: from here to the port city of Ancona in the southeast, there are over 40 miles of sandy beaches.

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It was made famous by native son Federico Fellini, who grew up in the town and played it in several of his films, including Amarcord.

The region, Emilia-Romagna, is synonymous with Italy’s greatest export: La Dolce Vita, the good life of wine, food, handsome people and fast cars.

You can see la dolce vita as soon as you hit the beach: the obvious first are the beach bars, hundreds of them, where thousands – dressed as little as possible – wash down oceans of Aperol spritzes, Negronis and Italian white wine for 5 euros ($5 .35) per glass.

Then there’s the food, which has made this region one of the foodie capitals of Europe.

People flock to the cities of Parma, Modena, Bologna, Ravenna and Rimini to eat the Parma ham (prosciutto), the cheese (Parmesan of course) and the pasta in endless variations, but especially tagliatelle, tortellini and lasagna, all made by hand .

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It is also the industrial heart of Italy, where Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis are made.

The Jersey Shore, but not

Unlike Americans, Italians don’t just plop down their beach bag and dive into the ocean.

The Italians have built small towns on their beaches and there is a protocol.

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Here you can rent a beach chair and parasol from the cabana boys. The chairs and umbrellas are arranged in neat rows, nearly three dozen, all numbered, stretching down to the Adriatic Sea, nearly a quarter of a mile from the street.

“long rows of umbrellas in Cattolica, Emilia Romagnaother beach images from Italy:”

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And it is the Adriatic Sea that everyone comes for. It separates the Italian peninsula from Croatia and Albania 100 miles to the east. Like the Atlantic, the Adriatic lacks the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean, but what it lacks in color it makes up for in temperature (already 67 degrees), tranquility and accessibility (Bologna is less than an hour away).

With so much money, so much sun, so much water and so much food and wine you’d think life would be an endless party, but Italians don’t seem very happy these days, and rightly so.

A bargain for Americans, but not for Italians

Italy is heavily dependent on tourism. More than 2 million Italians are employed in the tourism industry, about 8% of total employment.

The good news: the tourist business is booming.

Business is “crazy good,” a taxi driver in Bologna told me, “It hasn’t stopped since Covid. Not even in winter. Tourists keep coming.”

A gondolier in Venice, an hour north, told me that all 433 gondoliers in Venice worked full time, even in winter.

“Gondoliers’ business has been very good over the past year,” he told me, even as he charged 120 euros (about $130) for a 45-minute gondola ride in the narrow, watery canals behind St. Mark’s Square.

That ocean of tourists is greatly aided by the presence of Americans. While Europeans, especially French and Germans, make up the largest group of foreign visitors, Americans do something their European brethren don’t: they tip really well.

“We like Americans,” a waiter in Modena told me after I gave him a 10% tip for exceptional service.

For Americans, Europe in general, but especially the smaller cities of Italy, is of great value. At one point last year, the dollar was aligned with the euro. Even today, with a euro around $1.07, the continent is still a relative bargain.

In the high season in the summer, prices will be higher, but at the moment you can get a good hotel room within walking distance of the beach in Rimini for 100-200 euros. At the famed Grand Hotel Rimini, built in 1908 and the location of several Fellini movies, you can mingle at the hotel’s famed pool or private beach for $200-$400 per night, depending on the day of the week.

On the beach, at the Il Circolino restaurant, you can get a course of pasta (tagliatelle al ragu – it’s amazing) for 12 euros ($13) and main courses such as chicken or seafood such as polpo (octopus) for 15 to 22 euros ($16 -$24).

These are the high end places.

It’s a bargain for Americans, but for most Italians even those prices are out of reach.

“Business is good on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, but so much depends on tourists,” the manager of a restaurant told me.

The problem, he said, is that the good life made famous by Fellini is increasingly beyond the reach of ordinary Italians.

It’s all about the taxes

“The average Italian here earns around 20,000 euros a year,” he told me. He is probably talking about people who work in the service industry. According to OECD statistics, the average salary in Italy in 2021 was about 29,000 euros (about $31,000). That is still below the European Union average of around 33,000 euros.

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But his face really turned sour when he started talking about the problem that unites every Italian: taxes.

They are high. Very high. Italians pay three taxes: national income tax (including 9.2% social security contribution), regional taxes and municipal taxes. The income tax rate is progressive: the top income tax rate is 43% — higher than the European average of 38%.

“If an Italian pays all his taxes, he can pay more than half of his income to the government,” said the manager, clasping his hands together and rocking them back and forth, Italian for “I can’t believe we this pay a lot.”

No wonder so many salaries are paid under the table. Italy has a famous black market economy.

What’s left to live on is the problem. Rents in Rimini are 550-650 euros (about $590-$700) per month for a small one-bedroom apartment. That is about 40% of the net salary for one of the manager’s employees.

No wonder that 62% of young Italians (25-29) still live with their parents.

Another smaller wonder that even a 12 euro plate of pasta can feel a bit extravagant.

It’s also no surprise that the manager said the company is increasingly reliant on wealthier Germans, British and Americans.

“Italy is great for Americans, but for an Italian to visit America it is impossible,” he said.

Italians leave looking for opportunities

High load. Low average incomes. High inflation (8% per year).

Life has become so difficult that many young Italians continue to leave Italy in search of opportunities elsewhere.

Five million Italians now live abroad.

Another key motivation: lack of job growth.

I had lunch with a family, a woman and her two children, in Padua, a university town about an hour northwest of Rimini. Both children aged 24 and 31 live at home with their mother.

The eldest has been working in Denmark for a few years now, at a software company. He was visiting his family, but was due to return to Denmark that week. His sister, who spent a year working in the US, is getting her architecture degree in Venice but admits she may want to go abroad to complete her studies.

“I think it would be better to go abroad, to get more experience and maybe better job offers,” she told me.

The bottom line: Italy’s biggest export, la dolce vita, is still very much alive. The sun, the wine, the food, the wonderful people are all still there.

It’s just getting a little harder for the locals to partake in those great exports.

Italy is a bargain for vacationing Americans. Not so much

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