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Rome's empty streets reveal a tourism industry in crisis

All roads lead to an empty Rome
All roads lead to an empty Rome 04:47

There's no doubt Rome's spectacular backdrop remains, but in the wake of the coronavirus, something else is missing: American tourists.

"They are our largest demographic, and without them we just don't have a business," said Annie Ojile about the American tourists she's always relied on to book Vespa rides through the Eternal City with her company, Scooteroma.

The Colosseum in Rome, not surrounded by crowds or traffic.   CBS News

Correspondent Seth Doane first met the Minnesota native in 2017 while working on a "Sunday Morning" story about the stylish scooter that's synonymous with Italy. At the time, business was good. "I've always prided myself with every year we grow," Ojile said. "We do more than the year before. Except this year."

In 2019, more than 5.5 million Americans visited Italy, spending nearly $3 billion. But one travel industry group predicts this year may be the worst for tourism in decades. And last week, the European Union extended its ban on American travelers.

Ojile said, "Since COVID, everything has changed. We lost 100% of our bookings – all of them."

The Pantheon in Rome typically welcomes seven million visitors a year. 2020 is not a typical year.  CBS News

Last June, for example, Ojile and her crew took more than 400 people on trips.

Typically they'd make pit stops at a gelateria called Torcè. Federica Puddinu said they've lost upwards of 60 percent of their business. "We come here between three and six times a day, because we stop with each tour," said Ojile.

"It's really a circle," Puddinu said.

As cancellations piled up, Ojile started taking pictures of a Rome that was almost unrecognizable without the throngs of tourists. And as Italy has re-opened, its museums and famous sites are notably quiet.  

A view from Via dei Condotti of the empty Spanish Steps. Annie Ojile

"A lot of people say that Rome has returned to the Romans," she said. "But it is absolutely devastating for the economy, and the tourism sector is the first to feel it."

Doane saw that "trickle-down" effect at another stop on Ojile's tour: Testaccio Market, where she brings visitors for pizza at Casa Manco. Owner Paola Manco said she's lost about 70 percent of her business.

Business at Casa Manco is about 30 percent of normal.  CBS News

She also said she misses Americans – even their culinary peculiarities: "A bit selective on food," Manco said.

"Really, in what ways?" Doane asked.

"Yeah. They don't like anchovies, or they want meat or chicken on the pizza, which is ewww!" she laughed.

Jennifer Iduh, head of research and development at the European Travel Commission, told Doane, "This is definitely a crisis that's unprecedented." She said the rest of Europe is facing the same problems.

Doane said, "There's one issue of being able to afford it: people have lost jobs. There's another issue of just simple confusion: Can I get to one place or another? Will there be flights? Will there be quarantine rules?"

"There's a lot of confusion," Iduh replied. "But at the moment, there is a lot of efforts being made to make this situation less confusing for travelers that are willing to go on trips again."

Scooteroma is hoping to attract tourists coming from within Europe, and is adjusting to COVID by offering rides with masks, and socially-distanced walking tours featuring street art.

It turns out, even street artists, like Solo and Diamond, were affected by the pandemic.

"During the lockdown was impossible," said Solo. "We were inside a cage, like tigers in a cage. It was a very big problem, 'cause we had booked a lot of dates, because our work is painting around the world."

"Everything is freezed," said Diamond. "We lost, like, four big commissions all over the world."

Annie Ojile said, "I do miss the interaction and meeting people from all over the world, and having this exchange of energy."

She has written off this summer season, and as she fights to save her business, she is focusing on what she can control: her patience.

"We're just waiting," Ojile said. "I always say, all I know is what's happening today and tomorrow. And then, we'll see about the rest."

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Story produced by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Brian Robbins. 

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