ROME– Analysts and observers expect tourists from China to play an over-sized role when the beleaguered Italian tourism sector starts to recover.

In recent years, tourism has accounted for nearly 15 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product. But the sector was among the first and hardest-affected parts of the economy when the coronavirus pandemic hit Italy in February.

International tourists began to trickle into Italy starting in early June when the country lifted restrictions on international travelers from most parts of Europe, but tourists from lots of non-EU countries still face travel restrictions. In the end, this year is shaping up to be one to forget about for tourist-oriented restaurants, hotels, shops, airlines, and tour companies.

Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism Dario Franceschini said the sector is unlikely to see a full recovery before 2023. Key analysts and observers said that as the sector does recover, China will play a major role.

“Of all the foreign tourists who visited Italy last year, those from China represented a relatively small number, around 2.4 percent,” Gianfranco Lorenzo, the head of the research department for the Center for Touristic Studies, a not-for-profit organization that monitors the sector, told Xinhua. “That may sound unimportant compared to the number of arrivals from other countries, but their impact has been significant.”

Lorenzo said that one reason for that is because, according to data from the Bank of Italy, Chinese travelers have a larger-than-average economic impact when measured on a per-capita basis.

He said the data show that Chinese travelers are often more interested in what he called “Italian style” — luxury fashion and design — as in the country’s cultural attractions. He also noted that the number of Chinese travelers has increased at a faster rate than the sector as a whole and that the potential for growth was “almost unimaginable.”

He added: “Once this crisis is over, I expect the role of Chinese tourists to be bigger than it was before” the crisis.

Riccarda Saggese, an author and self-employed shopping consultant who splits her time between Rome and Florence, echoed some of Lorenzo’s points. Her job involves helping travelers navigate thousands of shops to find the items they are looking for.

“Ten years ago, it was unusual to have a client from China,” Saggese said in an interview. “But over the last couple of years, the number of clients I have had from China has been one out of every five or six, and growing.”

Saggese said the impacts of tourists from a specific place, like China, go beyond the immediate impacts of their visit.

“I like to think about the cultural exchanges: believe that the more Chinese tourists come to Italy and the more Italians travel to China the closer the two countries become on a human level,” she said. “Also, when travelers return from a trip they found enjoyable they speak about it with their friends, and that’s the best kind of advertising.”

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