World Cup Fails To Fill Hotels

TOURISM GETS THE BOOT

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ANTONIO MINIATI paces nervously in front of 26 empty tables at his fashionable Florentine Ristorante Oreste, and asks: ``Where are all the Americans?'' Mr. Miniati is not alone in asking. When it was announced last December that the United States would be one of the four teams to play first round matches here, local merchants joined together and began preparing for the onslaught of American tourists.

``More than 30 hotels and restaurants refurbished their establishments for the World Cup,'' says Ranieri Pontello, president of Florence's local organization committee for the 1990 tournament. ``So far it has been a waste of money.''

Following a 40-year absence from World Cup competition, the US has struggled to gain fan support. ``Most of the Americans in town are family members and friends of our players,'' says Robert Gansler, head coach for the US team.

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After one week of competition, local merchants, restaurateurs and hotel owners are lamenting the fact that the soccer finals are not bringing the expected tourism windfall. In fact, it's hurting business. Last year local officials estimated that the event would bring 60,000 extra bookings into the Tuscany region. So far few have come in.

``The effect of the World Cup has been decidedly negative,'' says Mario Lippi, owner of the Hotel Vesuvio. ``We expected that all our rooms would be booked for the month of June. Instead we've experienced a 30 percent drop from ordinary years.''

Local officials blame the low turn-out on travelers' fears of soccer violence and World Cup chaos. As a result many fans are staying over the border.

``I would rather spare myself the grief,'' says Kurt Wagner of Innsbruck, Austria. ``Instead, my family and I enjoyed a spectacular five-hour drive through the Alps and northern Italy.''

Unfortunately for local merchants, of the three teams playing here, only the Americans have a long journey. In the case of the other two teams, Austria and Czechoslovakia, the Italian travel agencies' association, FIAVET, is reporting that 85 percent of their supporters are traveling by car on game days.

Of the nearly 11,000 Czechoslovaks who drove 13-15 hours to watch their team beat the US (on June 10) here, only a handful stayed in hotels. ``To purchase the cheapest ticket for the game, cost me more than two weeks of pay,'' explains Joseph Havelka, a mechanic from Prague. ``Most of us brought our food and slept in our cars.''

Florence may have the mildest case of World Cup fever of any of Italy's 12 host cities. Residents seem indifferent, if not hostile, towards soccer's greatest show. The message ``The World Cup is killing you,'' is spray-painted on walls and traffic signs throughout the city.

Overall, the Italian government spent a staggering $5 billion to upgrade roads, railways and stadiums for the World Cup. In the rush to finish the projects on time, the Italian government was 10 times over budget, and 26 people died during stadium construction.

While the money spent in Florence has been relatively low in comparison, an estimated $1.5 million, the amount is enough to have scandalized some local taxpayers.

``Florence doesn't need more soccer fever,'' complains Mario Fazio, president of a historical preservation society called Italia Nostra. ``What it needs to do is put more money aside to help restore our national treasure, Italian works of art.''

However, the Italian government claims that the country's soccer team is a national treasure. ``When it's all over we can expect to make a profit of $15 million, and return the World Cup trophy to Italy,'' predicts Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, head of Italy's World Cup organizing committee.

The residents of Florence are less optimistic, now that the tournament has scared off much of their business.

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