Bella Italia

Italy, a land that continues to inspire writers, artists and casual visitors alike, is one of the world’s most popular destinations. Everyone seems to love the lifestyle of la dolce vita and the Italians who inhabit it, including members of the travel industry who, for the fifth consecutive year have designated Italy as the recipient of Recommend’s Readers’ Choice Award for the Best Selling Destination in Europe.

“We are so pleased to have won this recognition for our destination,” says Riccardo Stano, director of the Italian Government Tourist Board for North America, “but at the same time, we all recognize that 2009 will not go down as a great year for inbound tourism. Certainly our visitor count was—as you say in the United States—down, but not out.” Strano expects and hopes Italy will always earn the affection of North American travelers, and he notes the particular strength of the repeat visitor market. “We enjoy a repeat visitor audience of at least 40 percent,” Strano reports, “and while first-time travelers select destination such as Rome, Florence and Venice, repeat travelers are ready to diversify. They enjoy discovering new museums and new antiquities, different traditions and festivals, new tastes in food and wine, and we direct a good part of our promotions to this audience.”

Strano points out that one of the Italian Government Tourist Board’s major educational tools for the travel agent community is its annual Italia Symposium, a working and learning conference featuring Italy’s travel products—old and new are presented to more than 200 invited travel industry partners. The Veneto was the host for this year’s gathering, and Strano is confident that the region’s new approach to marketing its area-wide attractions is going to eventually find an important audience among U.S. travelers. “The Veneto region will be one of our leading destination promotion efforts in 2010,” he adds.

While Veneto is best known for its crown jewel destination, Venice, there are other major centers of great architectural and artistic interest: Verona, home of the eternal lovers Romeo and Juliet, gets a three-star rating from Michelin, and summer visitors enjoy opera performances in the Roman arena—last year under the direction of Placido Domingo. Padua, also, is full of art treasures, including frescoes by Giotto, and Vicenza. The city of the Palladio School of Architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage site, offers streets with Renaissance palazzos and hills studded with magnificent villas. And the season is coming for alpine skiing in the Dolomites, and also come winter, it’s time for opera-filled evenings at La Fenice Theater and the week-long Carnival in Venice, opening Feb. 6.

Mauro Galli, president of the Italian Travel Promotion Council and, incidentally, of Illinois-based TourCrafters, reminds us that, “Thirty years ago, travelers were just beginning to venture out of Florence to explore Tuscany, rent cars to discover places like Gubbio and Lucca, stay in lovely little inns—in short get out on the road and fall in love with Tuscany.” Well, two decades later, Galli says that American travelers are even better traveled, enjoy taking off on less-traveled paths, doing their vacation research on the Internet and are just better informed about Italy’s attractions. “The Symposium in Veneto is going to inspire us all to expand our packages out of Venice and introduce products such as wine touring (soave and prosecco are regional specialties), castle hopping, art-city touring, and stays in some lovely historic hotels. The potential here for the independent traveler, who accounts for at least 80 percent of the market, is enormous.”

The Starwood hotel group, this year’s Readers’ Choice Award winner for Best Resort/Hotel Chain in Europe—a recognition it’s received three years in a row—is certainly well positioned in Veneto. Most particularly in Venice. Its Luxury Collection group (with 29 hotels overall in Europe), for instance, embraces two icons of luxury in Venice: the Gritti Palace, sitting right on the canal and occupying the 16th century residence of Doge Andrea Gritti, and the Danieli Hotel with superb views of the Venice lagoon and a quick stroll to the Bridge of Sighs. Jump to another “art of good living city” and you find the landmark Grand Hotel in Florence, and south to Naples for a grand view of Capri from the prestigious Hotel Excelsior, then move off shore to Sardinia and the Costa Smeralda for the resort members of the brand: Hotel Cala di Volpe, Hotel Pitrizza and Hotel Romazzino.