Rubbish, potholes and metro closures contribute to anger among visitors and citizens alike
As the day draws to a close in Rome, tourists are enjoying a nightcap at a bar on Piazza della Rotonda. In front of them stands the majestic Pantheon, the imposing domed temple built by Emperor Hadrian.
To their right, however, is a scene less befitting the piazza, famed for its elegance and history. A photomural of the temple covers boarding that surrounds a building under renovation and as the night gets later it is used to prop up a pile of rubbish bags and boxes discarded by nearby restaurants.
The rubbish will be cleared by the time the tourists have breakfast, but not before they have taken note. “Rome is beautiful but they can’t seem to manage the rubbish situation, can they?” remarked a visitor from Austria.
Residents, including Pope Francis, have long lamented the Italian capital’s degrado (decay) – the word frequently used to sum up a city in a perennial state of disrepair, from its rubbish-strewn streets, potholes, scrappy parks and medieval buildings marred by graffiti to closed metro stations and buses that either never come or occasionally combust.
But visitors are now starting to rebel, with many begrudging having to pay the tax for spending a night in the city only to get scant services in return. The Rome tourist levy – which starts at about €4 a night for a two- or three-star hotel and rises to €7 for a five-star – is the highest in Europe.
“Guests are asking why the tourist tax is high in respect to a city where the services don’t really exist,” Roberto Wirth, the owner and managing director of Hotel Hassler, a five-star hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps in the centre of the city, told the Guardian.
“There was a plan [by the local authority] for it to be increased, but hotel owners objected. There was no justification for it.”
As the tourism season gets under way, the issue enraging people the most is the prolonged closure of three metro stations in the historic centre while work is done on malfunctioning escalators. Spagna, located near the Hassler, and Barberini, were shut down in March, while Repubblica has been closed since October after 24 people were injured when a crowded escalator suddenly sped up before collapsing.
The stations are essential for tourists as they navigate their way to key landmarks, but also for people working in central Rome.
“It does seem unfair that the tax is so high when things don’t really work and there’s rubbish on the streets,” said a visitor from Milan outside Spagna station as she tried to work out how to get from there to the Vatican area. “We didn’t realise the stations were closed. We understand that the work is necessary, but perhaps they should have started earlier.”
Tomasso Tanzilli, a director at the Rome unit of Federalberghi, the Italian hotels association, said the tax would be a minor problem if the city functioned well.
“We have well-documented problems with neglect and cleanliness, but in a modern-day capital city it’s unthinkable to have three main stations in the centre closed,” he said. “There have been lots of promises but no sign yet of the stations reopening.”
Rome’s beleaguered mayor, Virginia Raggi, a politician with the Five Star Movement, the party governing nationally alongside the far-right League, is often blamed for the city’s woes, although the malaise stems from long before she was elected in June 2016.
Tanzilli said: “The problems were there before, but it’s clear that if they’re not resolved they accumulate. Over the past two years or so we’ve watched things crumble – that is the truth, the issues may originate from the past but they are more visible now.”
That visibility has prompted calls for Raggi to resign, with politicians from the opposition Democratic party (PD), which governed Italy until March 2018, protesting outside Spagna metro station this week.
Andrea Casu, the party’s secretary in Rome, said the PD allocated €189m to make the metro system safe, but it had not been used by Raggi’s administration “We are taking our fight against Virginia Raggi’s poor governance across the city and ask that she resigns.”
Raggi received a further blow last week after a measure that would have transferred a large portion of the city’s debt to the state was scaled back due to criticism from Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister and leader of the League. Salvini, who is capitalising on the problems as he strives to build support for his party before Rome’s municipal elections next year, considered it unjust that such a poorly managed city should be relieved of its debt.
But as the politicians squabble, tourism operators fear the impact on a city that already struggles to attract repeat visitors.
“This is our concern, we want to send out positive signals – that the metro stations are open and the city is clean,” said Tanzilli. “Unfortunately we are not able to do that yet, but our wish is to start talking about the future and not the present problems.”