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Italy’s charms are almost in reach again. Should we go though?
An Italy-based writer on what travelers need to know and whether Italy really is ready to relax its borders.
Italy is officially open to all leisure travelers, following a series of announcements that mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic-related shutdown in one of Europe’s most popular destinations.
Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio initially took to Facebook on May 8, saying that “tourism is a key part of Italy getting back to normal,” and adding that the government’s objective is “to reopen to visitors from foreign countries which have reached a high rate of vaccination.”
The government has long been hinting at relaxing restrictions from mid-May for Europeans and June for some long-haul visitors, including those from the United States. And although the lack of detail made most people skeptical it would ever happen, on May 14 they announced that quarantine will be waived for travelers testing negative from the U.K., Israel, and Europe.
And then, the bombshell. Late at night Italian time on the same day, they announced that Delta and Alitalia’s “COVID-tested flights” from New York and Atlanta to Rome and Milan—for which passengers must test negative 48 hours before boarding, then again at the airport, and a third time on arrival—will be opened up to all American passengers from May 16. Until now, they’ve been for those traveling for essential reasons only.
This means that any American citizen may now travel to Italy, even on vacation, for the first time in over a year, if they take one of these flights and test negative twice before departure and then on arrival. In his Facebook post, Di Maio had said they were considering this option for June. The eagerness to beat Europe’s other countries opening up clearly got the better of them.
Delta announced May 14 that it will be launching COVID-tested flights from New York (JFK) to Venice July 2, plus Atlanta to Venice and Boston to Rome August 5, in conjunction with partner Alitalia.
Other airlines have yet to confirm whether they’ll be running similar flights, but the Italian government issued a decree late Friday night saying that flights would be allowed from Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York (JFK), Newark, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. They must arrive at either Rome (Fiumicino), Milan (Malpensa), Naples, or Venice. It did not specify any airlines by name, so presumably there’s scope for others to follow suit.
Everyone remembers the news coming out of Italy in March 2020: people dying at what, back then, seemed like an astonishing rate, doctors themselves succumbing to this horrifying new disease. The pandemic hit Italy hard—after the U.K., it holds the grim record for the most dead in Europe.
And although in summer 2020 it looked like Italy had beaten the virus—case numbers stayed low, even though they were rising sharply around Europe—the country plunged into a brutal second wave when winter hit.
Most of us in the country have spent most of 2021 under some form of lockdown, again (current restrictions are designated by region). And although rates are now falling, and most regions are rated “yellow,” at the back of our minds we have the example of Sardinia, which was designated Italy’s first white region—with close to no transmission—at the end of February; it rocketed to red within just three weeks.
All that said, you won’t find things too muted, if you come. Tourism represents 13 percent of Italy’s GDP—far more in cities like Venice, which have been brought to their knees by the pandemic. And most people are happy at the idea of having visitors back.
“We’re all waiting for the government to give us free rein to live normal life again, and bring our culture to the table,” says Massimiliano Bovo, who runs Venice’s historical Gatto Nero restaurant with his parents.
“I miss hearing ‘Hello, do you have a table?’ I miss people’s smiles, hearing ‘Thank you.’ I have tourists who’ve been coming for 20 years, and some of them have become friends, not clients. I miss sitting down after work with them and having a drink and a laugh. This is our life.”
That’s not to say things will be easy, even when the borders open up. Just 13.4 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated as of May 14, after lengthy delays at the start of the program—although things are now picking up pace, with vaccination slots for the over-40s finally opening up.
But the country is still battling the virus, with case numbers slowly falling and restrictions easing only in the last couple of months. There have been nearly 350,000 new cases in the past month, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center—and nearly 9,000 deaths. That’s just under half what it was in the peak, December 2020, when 18,535 Italians lost their lives. The U.S. State Department still has a Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory for Italy in place. The nightmare is far from over.
After what the country has been through—we weren’t able to move between regions until last month—there’s still a lot of fear about what unrestricted travel might stir up. And the color-coded system means there’s no guarantee that if you book to visit a yellow zone, it’ll be yellow by the time you get there—just look at Sardinia.
However, there’s a strong desire to see tourists return. And many in the tourist industry are bullish about the future. “We’re moving towards safety,” says Marco Bongiovanni, owner of Sardinia’s family-run Baja Hotels Group on the coastal paradise that is the Costa Smeralda.
“At a rate of 500,000 vaccinations a day, soon we’ll reach half the population. We’re reopening bars, restaurants, beaches, museums, and so on with care. Before, it wouldn’t have made sense to open the borders to a locked-down country. But now, allowing vaccinated people who’ve tested negative is sensible. So tourists should feel welcome to visit the ‘Bel Paese’.”
Masks are required at all times in public—even outdoors—except when eating and drinking, or taking exercise. Public transport is capped at 50 percent capacity, and “COVID-free trains,” whose passengers are tested before boarding, run daily between Rome and Milan. There are plans to introduce them on major tourist routes later in the summer. Social distancing is also compulsory. Restaurants must sit tables at least one meter (3.2 feet) apart. Masks must be worn in all public areas of hotels.
There’s a national curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. at the moment, though it’s expected to be relaxed to 11 p.m., or maybe even midnight, in June. And, if you come, bring layers—only outdoor dining is allowed, even in the relatively relaxed yellow zones, until at least June 1.
Not for the COVID-tested flights. Going forward, the rules have yet to be announced officially, but Luigi Di Maio specified in his Facebook post that the countries they plan to fully open borders to are those “which have reached a high proportion of vaccination”—which implies that vaccination will be key as time goes on.
However, it may not be the case that you as an individual need to be vaccinated. It’s reasonable to assume that U.S. travelers, once allowed in, will be subject to the same rules as visitors from other countries with high vaccination rates. And on May 14 it was announced that from May 16, travelers from the U.K. and Israel—both of which have high vaccination rates—will be allowed in, quarantine-free. The ruling hasn’t yet been published in full, but when announcing the rule change, the government didn’t specify obligatory vaccinations.
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Definitely for the COVID-tested flights, and most likely for any other schemes that may open up in future. For some time, now, anyone arriving in the country needs to present a negative test, taken within either 48 or 72 hours of arrival, depending on where they’re coming from. If, again, we use the U.K. and Israel as the base point, you’d need to have a test carried out within 48 hours of your arrival in Italy.
However, unlike many other countries, Italy also accepts antigen tests as well as PCR tests—as long as they’re done via swab, not by taking blood. It’s likely that rule won’t change.
Until May 16, anyone entering Italy needs to quarantine for a minimum of five days. However, after this date, the quarantine will be lifted for those traveling from European Union countries, the U.K., and Israel with negative COVID tests. As stated, there’s also no quarantine required on a “COVID-tested” flight from the U.S.
It all depends on the “color’” of the region you’re traveling to. In yellow zones, things are relatively normal—everything is open, but with rules. So museums and galleries are running at around 50 percent capacity—the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, for instance. Weekend tickets to museums and galleries must be booked at least a day in advance. Theaters, cinemas, and event spaces can open to a 50 percent capacity, and only by seating clients with at least one meter (3.3 feet) space between them—with a maximum of 500 spectators inside and 1,000 outside. Restaurants may offer outdoor dining only.
In orange zones, shops are open, although those in malls are closed on weekends and holidays. Museums, galleries, and events spaces are closed; hairdressers and beauticians are open. Locals must remain in the comune (town council) area that they live in—it’s not yet clear what tourists would be allowed to do. Restaurants can do take-out only.
In red zones, nothing is open other than essential shops, and you must have a government self-certification form to leave the place you’re staying—even if it’s just to take your one permitted form of exercise per day.
Delta’s COVID-tested flights currently run daily from JFK to Milan, three times a week from JFK to Rome (daily from July 1), and five times a week from Atlanta to Rome, increasing to once a day from May 26. JFK to Venice begins July 2, Atlanta to Venice August 5, and Boston to Rome August 5.
Alitalia currently runs COVID-tested flights from JFK to Rome. It’s not yet known if other airlines will match them, or wait to see if the borders open fully under a vaccine policy first.
There are some 99 properties in Italy on Welcome Beyond (one of our favorite Airbnb alternatives that specializes in design-centric homes and boutique hotels). Think beautiful Sardinian villas overlooking the ocean, immaculately appointed apartments in Rome, and open plan villas in the Tuscan countryside.
The Hoxton just opened its 10th outpost in the Salario district of Rome, with 192 bedrooms decked out with parquet floors and midcentury design touches, and the Paragon 700 in Puglia—an 18th-century mansion turned intimate hotel with just 11 individually curated suites—has garnered rave reviews.
If you’re thinking of Milan, Galleria Vik Milano is worth checking out. In the Alps, Adler Lodge Ritten was recently included on our favorite hotels roundup. Looking to use those Marriott points? The Grand Universe Lucca, Autograph Collection is a great pick right in the heart of Lucca in Tuscany.
AFAR’s trusted travel advisors have plenty of suggestions for hotels in Italy, too, including more options in Rome, the Dolomites, Lake Como, Florence, Tuscany, and the Amalfi Coast.
This story was published on May 14, 2021, and updated on May 18 with hotel information. Tim Chester contributed reporting.
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