This article on Italy-China relations has been written to inaugurate the opening of our Italian Chapter. Stay tuned for their opening event!
Italy and China are two nations with a long, venerable, and complex history. These two countries came into contact with each other in ancient times: suffice it to mention Marco Polo or Matteo Ricci, respectively an explorer and a missionary, who travelled to the East in the XIII and XVI centuries and were among the first to meticulously describe China to the West.
The official diplomatic relations between Italy and China started many years after the first contacts between the two cultures: in 1970, Italy officially recognized the People’s Republic of China as a country by breaking its formal relations with the Republic of China. The two countries celebrated 50 years of diplomatic relations last year. On this occasion, they decided to set up the “Italy-China Year of Culture and Tourism”, a year full of events and activities aimed at boosting cooperation, travelling, and people-to-people exchange.
The opening event was held in January 2020 and started with a Forum called “International cooperation in the tourism and cultural sector by Italy and China: a new outlook”, aimed at discussing sustainable tourism, and the changing touristic behaviours in the Age of Internet (Farnesina, 2020). This opening Forum kicked off “a programme of shows and events for promoting culture and tourism taking place during the whole year” (Farnesina, 2020), both in Chinese and Italian cities: art exhibitions, cooking events, music and dance performances, and much more. The focus of the discussion during the Forum was also on “how to broaden the number of UNESCO sites included in the tourist itineraries” (Farnesina, 2020). The two countries precisely hold 55 UNESCO heritage sites each (UNESCO, 2021), more than any other country in the world, and have a varied and worldwide famous culinary tradition: for these reasons, they attract many tourists from all over the world, or rather, they used to. Due to the pandemic outbreak and the consequent travel bans, tourism and cultural exchange were brought to a standstill and the above-listed events designed to promote exchange and tourism did not take place.
However, these events have been rescheduled and will be held in 2022. In December 2020, the Italian Ambassador in Beijing, Luca Ferrari, and the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Hu Heping, discussed the importance of boosting the Sino-Italian bilateral cooperation in the coming years, jointly promoting sustainable tourism, and encouraging travel to their respective heritages (Toschi, 2020). As outlined in an article on the website Cina in Italia, the idea to postpone the “Year of Culture and Tourism” has become the symbol of Italy’s and China’s will to pursue their cooperation (Toschi, 2020). Giovannini on CGTN, similarly, stresses that the anniversary for the year of tourism and culture “remains a demonstration of the common intent to maintain an important people-to-people exchange between two of the world's most important civilizations.” (Giovannini, 2020).
In the following sections, I will explore some figures on tourism and the most famous “twin towns”. I will conclude with some remarks and considerations.
Tourism in figures
In terms of tourism, the two countries show positive bilateral trends. However, since data regarding Italian tourism in China are not easily accessible, this part will focus on China-to-Italy tourism.
Before the pandemic outburst, the data on tourist arrivals from China were encouraging and basically stable. According to the data published by the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), in 2016 the Chinese touristic presences in Italy were 4.5 million, in 2017 they were above 5 million, and they reached 5.3 million in 2018 (ISTAT, 2020). The overall tourist number from China to Italy topped 5.355 million in 2019. Italy is the fifth country in Europe in terms of arrivals from China, after the UK, France, Germany, and Russia (Fondi, 2020). As far as what concerns the destinations, “Chinese tourists are beginning to branch out from the more touristy destinations of Rome, Venice, and Milan. Island tours of Sardinia and Sicily have become more popular recently” (Lubin, 2019).
Tourism from the city of Chongqing represents an interesting case: Italy opened its Consulate in Chongqing in 2014, and in 2019 a big percentage – higher than the previous years – of Chinese tourists came precisely from that city (Fondi, 2020). This is an indication that diplomatic offices such as Embassies, Consulates, or Italian Cultural Institutes can play a relevant role in the promotion of cultural exchange and tourism.
People exchange clearly suffered a setback in the past year and a half, not only because of travel bans, but also because China strongly promoted domestic tourism. However, an article published on Xinhua in September 2020, presenting the views of various experts on the touristic sector, claims that China will play a significant role in Italian tourism when the sector recovers (Xinhua, 2020). These predictions are particularly interesting since, “according to data from the Bank of Italy, Chinese travellers have a larger-than-average economic impact when measured on a per-capita basis” (Xinhua, 2020).
There are several examples of twin towns between Italy and China. The three oldest pairs are Milan-Shanghai (established in 1979), Florence-Nanjing (1980), and Venice-Suzhou (1980). Normally the pairings are made according to the existing similarities between the cities. Milan and Shanghai are respectively Italy and China’s fashion capitals and economic hubs. Florence and Nanjing were both capitals in ancient times and are filled with scenic spots and ancient buildings. Finally, Suzhou’s ancient part is characterized by canals, bridges, and narrow streets that remind of Venice’s structure, to such an extent that this East-China metropolis was nicknamed “The Venice of the East” (dōngfāng de wēinísī 东方的威尼斯). This kind of relation between cities is important to encourage cooperation in various sectors (education, tourism, culture, etc.) and to promote people-to-people exchange.
Cultural and touristic exchange belongs to a wider framework of bilateral relations and is inevitably influenced by the general political trends. These concerns are outlined on China Files in the interview with Claudia Ye, legal representative of Shenzhou Travel, a travel agency based in Milan. She believes that, even when the worst part of the health emergency is over, if China does not trust Europe, Chinese tourists will not come back (China Files, 2021). For this reason, territory promotion, as much as the official events planned by the Italian and Chinese Ministries of Foreign Affairs, assume an extremely important role in preserving – and boosting – tourism and people-to-people exchange.
The touristic sector is an important one to cherish: it not only gives work to many people, but also plays a role in raising mutual understanding and familiarity between different countries. As stressed by Saggese, a self-employed consultant and author whose statement can be found on Xinhua, “the more Chinese tourists come to Italy and the more Italians travel to China, the closer the two countries become on a human level” (Xinhua, 2020).
Maria Elena Sassaroli is a master’s double degree student in International Relations at University of Turin and Beijing Foreign Studies University, currently interning at the Italian Consulate in Adelaide. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and culture at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and spent some time in China as an exchange student at Suzhou University and Chengdu’s Sichuan University. She is passionate about China-India relations, China-EU relations, and China’s domestic policy. You can find her on Instagram as @mariaelenastone or on LinkedIn.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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Giovannini, M. August 2020. China-Italy relations represent an outstanding example of cooperation. CGTN Website. https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-08-26/China-Italy-relations-represent-an-outstanding-example-of-cooperation-TgNY2zKrzq/index.html (accessed 30 May 2021).
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