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Venice's Piazza San Marco is seen in a Feb. 25, 2020, file photo. Carnival festivities were cancelled following an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in northern Italy.ANDREA PATTARO/AFP/Getty Images

After catching a taste for international travel last summer during a month-long trip to Scotland and Ireland, Robb Engen, a financial planner based in Lethbridge, immediately booked a three-week Italian family vacation for April, 2020 with stops in Rome, Florence, Cortona and Venice.

“Our oldest daughter is really into archaeology and history, so she’s particularly excited about Rome and visiting the Colosseum,” Engen said. “Our youngest daughter is an aspiring artist, and we know she’ll love the art in both the Vatican and in Florence.”

But with Canada issuing a level-3 travel advisory to avoid non-essential travel to the northern regions of Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige due to the spread of COVID-19, Engen may need to change his plans. At the time of publication, more than 2,000 cases and 52 deaths had been reported in Italy.

“As the number of cases and deaths increased in northern Italy, we wondered about cancelling our travel plans or altering them,” Engen said. “We’re under the impression that our flights can be refunded due to this heightened advisory.”

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Italian tourism officials want to put the fears of potential visitors such as Engen at ease and are determined for travellers to see the country as a safe destination. They’ve taken extraordinary measures to protect tourists and locals from the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’ve labelled Italy with three codes," said Salvatore Basile, co-ordinator with the Italian National Tourist Board. "The red zone has heavy restrictions where people can’t get out and people can’t get in, but that only represents 11 out of 7,904 Italian cities, which is equal to just 0.05 per cent of all of Italy. The yellow coded area has cancelled some events and areas open to the public now have restrictions so there’s no spread of the virus. The rest of Italy has no restrictions, but there are recommendations in place such as not having close contact during greetings.“

A tourist wears a protective mask outside the Colosseum, in Rome, on Feb. 28, 2020.ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

But will the message get through?

“The key lesson is for destinations to have a communications strategy that’s clear and very honest,” said Frederic Dimanche, director at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

Transparency is key when it comes to communicating and building trust with tourists, whether they are already at the destination or planning to visit, he explained. “It’s tough because you need to invest some money into public relations efforts, into media communications to establish the truth or to counteract the overall perception that the whole country is affected or the whole island is destroyed."

Other destinations facing a crisis have faced similar uphill battles when it comes to educating the public.

Getting the truth out there has been vital for the Bahamas, where 60 per cent of the gross domestic product comes from tourism, according to Tommy Thompson, deputy director-general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. When Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas last September, news media outlets around the world widely reported more than 50 deaths and showed images of the devastation. The result was a lopsided view of the reality.

“Grand Bahama and Abaco were hammered pretty badly, but the rest of the country, including Nassau and Paradise Island in particular where we get more than 70 per cent of our visitors, was totally unaffected,” Thompson said. “We saw cancellations because there was the thinking that the whole country was devastated, but it was just two islands in the northern part of the Bahamas.”

“We had to do a geography lesson to the media, tour operators and the consumers as well,” Thompson continued. “We got a map designed in colour that showed which islands were open and which ones weren’t open to visualize how things were in the country.”

Thompson estimates that tourism dropped 30 per cent immediately after the hurricane, but the Bahamas still had a record year with more than 7 million visitors. So far, 2020 numbers are looking promising – but the COVID-19 fears challenging Italy might also affect these islands more than 8,000 kilometres away. Milan, located in northern Italy, is one of the Bahamas’ major markets.

Only time will tell how many potential tourists will end up being too spooked or unable to travel.

“We received a note from one of our Airbnb hosts in Rome about ‘business as usual’ activities in the city," Engen said about his upcoming trip. “It was certainly reassuring.”

“A lot can change either way in six to eight weeks, so, for now, we’re planning to travel, but we’ll wait and see what happens.”

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