Analysis: Tourism helps South Tyrol defy Italian recession

Wed Jul 11, 2012 5:42pm EDT
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By Lisa Jucca

SULDEN, Italy (Reuters) - Pure spring water, solitary Alpine paths, the discreet hospitality of mountain people: this is the sober recipe with which the remote South Tyrolean hamlet of Sulden has won over German Chancellor Angela Merkel for seven summers in a row.

Merkel, a keen hiker who shuns exotic holiday destinations, was introduced to this village, population 350, at the foot of the majestic Ortles glacier by Italy's best-known living climber, Reinhold Messner, over dinner in Berlin in 2004.

"She was planning to go to Seiser Alm, another resort in the Dolomites. But then Messner's wife Sabine said: why don't you come to Sulden? And Merkel replied: I have never heard of it," said Messner's friend and expedition companion Paul Hanny.

Six million tourists made their way last year to this pristine, mostly German-speaking Italian region wedged between the Swiss and Austrian borders, seeking refuge from the stresses of Europe's deep economic crisis and keeping South Tyrol's economy afloat while the rest of Italy sank into recession.

Like elsewhere in South Tyrol, Sulden, nicknamed 'Merkel's Valley' after her frequent visits, relies on German tourism to make up for the shrinking presence of cash-strapped Italians.

The region's inhabitants enjoy a much closer relationship with Europe's paymaster Germany than does the rest of euro-zone struggler Italy.

Walking past the well-kept chalets, cafes and hotels it is difficult to believe that Sulden, which also enjoyed a three-day visit by pop star Michael Jackson in 2001, was once an impoverished village where even bread was a delicacy. It lacked a proper paved road until the late 1960s.

"The crisis has not hit us as badly as elsewhere in Italy. This is because 70 percent of our tourists are Germans," said Tschenett Hartwig, mayor of the town of Stilfs, to which Sulden belongs.   Continued...

Flowers are seen in front of the Ortler Group mountains in the northern Italian village of Sulden, in Alto Adige (South Tyrol) province July 11, 2012. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler