VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - Scarcely have floods that hit Venice last year receded than the coronavirus has posed a new threat to the lagoon city’s billion-euro tourism industry, shutting carnival for the first time in 50 years and fuelling fears of a second “economic” virus.
By Monday lunchtime, authorities had identified 32 cases in the Veneto region, including four in Venice itself, part of an outbreak across northern Italy that has brought more than 220 confirmed cases and at least six deaths.
As part of preventive measures that included closing off the worst-affected towns near Italy’s business capital Milan, closing schools and universities and calling off sports events, authorities canceled the last two days of the Venice carnival.
It was the first time the historic carnival, with its fantastical 18th century masks and costumes, has been shut down early since it was revived in the 1970s.
“I think the government has been excessively prudent, to use a euphemism, it’s as though there were an Ebola epidemic,” said Marco Michielli, head of Veneto’s hoteliers’ association Federalberghi.
“Cancellations are raining down all over the region, like in the rest of Italy.”
Coming on top of the disastrous floods that surged through the city streets last November, washing into sites including the historic Saint Mark’s Basilica and sending tourists wading for safety, the coronavirus has hit hard.
“Venice has had some pretty bad luck recently,” said Marco Pusiol, a traditional glassblower in Murano, a district of Venice where the craft has been practiced for centuries and which was already struggling after the floods.
“We’re talking about zero takings, days and days without seeing a single customer coming into the shop.”
Venice remains one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting more than 1 million visitors from China alone last year, but the twin impact of flooding and disease has left it reeling.
For the disoriented tourists who could still be seen wandering in the city streets, some in anti-sickness face masks and some still wearing their carnival costumes, the weekend left little to celebrate.
“Stopping the carnival two days before the end is useless. It’s just a show for the media to reassure people,” said carnival goer Francesca Rota.
Even before the outbreak was announced last Friday, the carnival season was off to a bad start with normally fully booked hotel rooms still available and reservations down 30% on a normal year, according to officials from the Venice hoteliers association.
The figure was now getting close to a 40-50% fall, similar to the level seen during last year’s floods.
“Carnival brings us about 40% of our takings for the year for a hotel sector that’s worth 2 billion euros a year, not counting all the associated businesses,” said Daniele Minetti, the association’s vice-president.
“For 2020 as a whole, there’s certain to be a hit.”
Additional reporting by Oriana Boselli, Writing by James Mackenzie, editing by Ed Osmond