NEW YORK -- Reports of the demise of Italy as a tourism destination have been greatly exaggerated, according to tourism officials, who say that the country has unfairly been tarred with the brush of the Kosovo conflict.

According to the Italian Government Tourist Board, known in the U.S. as ENIT, the country posted a 5% overall increase in tourism during the 1999 Easter holiday over the same period in 1998.

Eugenio Magnani, ENIT travel commissioner North America, credited pre-Jubilee fever, at least in part, for the boost, while others point to successful promotional campaigns and a favorable exchange rate.

Magnani, who bristled at the suggestion that bookings to Italy have fallen dramatically since the start of the conflict, said, "There are no problems in Italy at all with regard to security or transportation.

"It is as safe as any other European country or as the U.S., for that matter."

One misconception, he said, is that tourists are avoiding Venice, which, according to Magnani, shared in the Easter tourism boom.

Cancellations of departures from Venice on the part of some cruise lines may even have served to increase air arrivals of visitors who can't get there any other way, he said.

"I think Italy has been portrayed unfairly," agreed Fred Berardo, president of Central Holidays in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

"Our bookings are about what they were at this time last year, which is to say very strong," he said, adding, however, that the numbers have fallen a little short of projections.

"We did expect an increase for the year, and it is not quite as much as we predicted, but we do see very good activity for 1999."

He noted that the group department, in particular, has experienced "tremendous increases in the first quarter."

Berardo, who also is chairman of the U.S.-based Italian Promotion Council, said that other operators in the association have reported "good activity and good numbers, especially in group business."

Like Magnani, Berardo credited the Jubilee for stirring excitement among groups and religious organizations.

"The very strong dollar also contributes to make Italy a strong destination," he said.

"The exchange rate is about 1,800 lira to the dollar, which is the best rate I have seen in 10 years."

As to security, Berardo said, "Italy is a very safe destination, and even though it has been mentioned [in the media] because of NATO activity, it is not directly involved in the conflict as a country.

"Italy is far away [from Kosovo] even though it is in the Adriatic, [and] the conflict [is not] currently affecting any services."

Italiatour reported a projected 25% increase for the year over 1998 based on advance bookings, according to Rosario Mariani, managing director for North America.

"Our increases are primarily in FITs, Mariani said, attributing the rise to the company's new emphasis on secondary destinations within Italy.

"We have redone our brochure, offering more fly-drives, FITs and opportunities to visit areas outside the main cities," he said, citing Tuscany, Umbria, the lake region, Liguria, Cinque Terre and Sicily as being especially popular.

"We did lots of promotional activity this year -- much more so than last year -- and these are the kinds of programs people are asking for," Mariani said.

He credits Alitalia's new service into Milan's Malpensa Airport for opening up the increasingly popular northern Italy region.

As to Venice, Mariani said he has not seen a significant drop in sales.

"It is too soon to say if [Kosovo] is having any affect on business, but I am still averaging about 50 to 60 bookings to Venice a day," he said.

"Maybe without the crisis in the Adriatic we would have had more, but we will close the year on an up note."

Alitalia Airlines is optimistic about the strength of tourism from the U.S., judging from the increase in the number of scheduled flights from North America to Italy for the upcoming summer months, according to Paolo Rubino, senior vice president and area manager of North America and Mexico for the airline.

Chicago-based TourCrafters reported a 19% first-quarter increase over last year, according to company president Mauro Galli.

"Italy is still in demand, especially among FIT and special-interest travelers who know the country," Galli said.

"These markets have not been affected whatsoever."

The Parker Company, a Lynn, Mass.-based firm that specializes in villa rentals, cooking schools programs and wine tours in Italy, supports the theory that experienced travelers are the least likely to be scared away from Italy over the Kosovo conflict.

"I read the papers, and I hear people saying that bookings are down, but we are seeing a 30% increase in bookings over last year," said company president Mario Scalzi.

"The only explanation I can come up with is that people who rent villas are more seasoned travelers who are not going to be drawn in to this sort of negative publicity," he said.

"They know there is nothing going on in Italy that will affect their holiday."

Apuglia, a region on the Adriatic coast that is home to three NATO bases, has probably seen the most impact from the war due more to the intermittent closing of its two commercial airports, one in Bari and one in Brindisi, officials said.

"We've been somewhat weak in Apuglia, which is a great area to visit and one which we are promoting," Mariani said, adding, however, that this is a region not very well-known by mainstream U.S. tourists.

"Most of the people we send to Apuglia are probably second or third generation Italians visiting relatives," Mariani said.

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