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A Rome Tour Guide’s Perspective on the Pandemic: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

a woman sitting at a table eating food

A travel industry veteran and one of Rome’s top tour guides step out of lockdown v.2 hibernation to explore the state of affairs in Italy.

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with native Roman, Art Historian and tour guide extraordinaire Chiara Antonelli for a “masks-off” chat (Zoom of course!). While working as a guide for When in Rome Tours for more than 10 years, Chiara has led thousands of visitors through the majestic city of Rome. Here’s what she had to say about the pandemic situation in Italy and how it has left the tour industry reeling.

a woman sitting at a table eating food

First of all, which is it: Chiara or CLAIRE?

Chiara….but if it is easier for clients to pronounce, I let them call me Claire!

After China, Covid moved westwards and struck Italy first. What was it like in the early days of this pandemic and how did it feel to be under the world’s microscope? 

In the early days of this pandemic there was a lot of confusion due to the fact that we simply did not know what we were dealing with. Like many other countries we certainly underestimated the problem because we didn’t yet know how contagious the virus was and how deadly it could be. The media, doctors and politicians kept saying that it was just a flu and that they could manage it, and then unexpectedly, in just a few days, the situation degenerated and we all saw very clearly how serious and worrying the situation was.

Yes, in Italy we did indeed feel as though we were under a microscope. In those days of fear and uncertainty the thing that most comforted and surprised me was receiving dozens of messages of love and support from my friends and clients who started to write to me from all over the world.

 I could not believe that people I’d met years before, maybe just for a few hours, THOSE PEOPLE were thinking about me (CHIARA, the chatty guide from Rome), and they were worried about me and my Family! In one word: MAMMA MIA!

a person taking a selfie in front of a building

Having worked in Italian tourism for 20 years, I took it for granted that Italy, being a top global tourist destination, would ALWAYS be bursting with tourists. Boy was I wrong! Is there anything you feel you took for granted before Covid? 

No, I never took anything for granted, on the contrary! After every tour I always felt full of emotion, joy and gratitude for life that gave me the most beautiful job in the world. However, I always thought everything was too beautiful to be true, too perfect to last so long and there wasn’t a day when I didn’t ask, “how long will this utopia last?”, will it go on forever? Well, the answer came in 2020!

a couple of people that are standing in the grass

There was much talk about “pivoting” or reinventing oneself versus riding out the storm. How did you feel about these options and what did you do? 

Yes, if we want to look on the bright side of the situation we can say that being forced to halt everything gave us the great chance to finally think and “reset” our lives. Many tour guides tried to “ride out the storm” doing virtual tours from home with little success.  I spent my time instead doing the same things I usually do in winter while in low season: I kept studying (my books, notes, recordings) to improve my knowledge of Rome and beyond. I watched several entire series on Netflix, but I didn’t cook, I didn’t even try. Why? because I donít know how.

What?? An Italian who can’t cook?? 

Luckily my boyfriend can, or I would have starved to death!

The world saw images and videos of Italians waving flags and singing on their balconies. did you participate? Why? / Why not? 

 Of course I did! Singing and clapping on the balconies was important for us in order to not feel alone, to empower each other and to make our support be known to all the doctors, nurses and health workers who were risking and giving their lives to save ours! We can better overcome even the most difficult situations if we do it together. In a fast-paced world where everything revolves around money and fake virtual realities I found in that simple daily appointment on the balcony something precious that we are losing… I found HUMANITY.

a group of people posing for the camera

Tourism provides 13% of Italy’s gross domestic product, which is massive. Do you feel that Italy is doing enough to keep this sector and all of us who rely on it on its feet? 

No, absolutely not. I don’t think that Italian politicians have ever understood how important tourism is and how much profit it could bring to the pockets of the country. They seem totally blind, it seems it never occurred to them that in Italy we could live off tourism alone, taking advantage of our artistic and natural wonders! On the contrary they are steadily entrusting the management (and earnings!) of our artistic heritage to private companies instead of keeping them public and improving the management. In addition, because they do not want to decrease taxes, all the tour operators that do business in Italy are moving their financial base to other countries to escape the staggering tax burden. So many companies are doing business in Italy but they pay taxes in other countries. What does it mean? Italy is the great amusement park of Europe but profits do not remain in Italy. Do you think this is the best way to manage the Italian tourism industry?

Surely not, and it has been a bone of contention for us since the get go.

Will Covid change the way you provide tours? Not in the sense of masks and hand sanitizer, but in terms of philosophical or human connection.

I do not think I will change the way I give tours very much because the “human connection” has always been the main priority during my tours. What I might do is make my clients stop more often: I will force them to. Stop running, taking selfies or checking the time because if I have learned one thing during this crazy 2020 it is just the immense importance to STOP, think, feel emotions deeply and look inside.

a person holding a cell phone screen with text

What do you miss most about guiding full time (besides a paycheck)? 

I am a social person so I miss the people: talking with them, learning from them, sharing time, fun and emotions with my beloved clients!

After Italy reopened, explain the “new Rome” and giving tours in our semi-deserted city. Did you have any revelations about pre-Covid, were there “too many tourists” before?

In my entire life I have never seen Rome so empty. It doesn’t even look like Rome, it’s like being in a black and white movie: no noise, no crowds, no queues! NOW ROME IS SIMPLY STUNNING. In this bizarre 2020 I can truly say I have had the opportunity to truly rediscover Rome, I began to notice lights, details, colours, atmospheres I never noticed before. And of course this has fuelled the immense love I feel for my city.

What advice would you give to a young aspiring tour guide? 

I would advise them to study alot and keep studying because you never stop learning about our historical and artistic wonders. Above all my advice is never to forget that the people who are sharing their precious time with you are not money or numbers: they are names, faces, they are LIVES. So their needs, their feelings, their opinions must always come before anything else.

Thank you Chiara for this lovely chat. Come to think of it, if it weren’t for Covid we would never have found the time!! In the meantime, When in Rome Tours (http://www.wheninrometours.com) has a new website and blog, sure to keep clients dreaming of Italy with their suitcases packed and ready!

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