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NAPLES (Reuters) - The streets of Naples are cleaner than ever but there are few tourists to see them. Images of head-high piles of trash have driven them away -- and with them the southern Italian city's biggest source of income.
With Naples' rubbish dumps declared full at the end of last year, household waste piled up in the streets, forcing the government to appoint a "trash tsar" to take control of a crisis blamed on years of weak governance and organized crime.
More than halfway through his 120-day mandate, former national police chief Gianni De Gennaro has cleared the streets by sending trash to other parts of Italy and Europe, and dumping it into temporary storage until new landfills or incinerators are ready.
But skeptical locals dismiss the clean-up as a cosmetic exercise ahead of an April 13-14 general election, and hoteliers say it's too little, too late; the damage to the city's image has already been done.
"This crisis has been devastating," said Sergio Maione, chief executive of three luxury hotels on the sea front.
"You'd have to go back to the time of cholera for something similar," he said, referring to an outbreak of the water-borne disease which hit the city in 1973.
Maione's Hotel Vesuvio -- where a room overlooking the Bay of Naples costs 220 euros ($345) in low season -- closed one of its two restaurants, the renowned Caruso, as business dried up.
The hotel expects occupancy of no more than 30 percent this year compared with 50 percent in 2007 and a far cry from the fat years around 2002 when some 80 percent of its rooms were full.
The trash crisis compounded problems for Naples, which was already fighting a reputation of rampant street and mafia crime.
In one counter-measure to concerns over crime, the city gave away free plastic watches to tourists in the hope they leave their tempting Rolexes in the hotel safe.
Add to those problems a record high euro/dollar exchange rate and the result is clear, says Maione.
"The city is empty -- there are no tourists." The solution? "We need to get rid of the waste."
Out on the streets, the few foreign visitors are surprised not to see the great mounds of rotting trash that piled up in the city centre just a few weeks before.
But while downtown Naples and the sea front are remarkably clean, stinking trash is still rotting on the outskirts and the countryside -- poor areas left off most tourist itineraries.
"I saw a lot of garbage on the way from Rome to here," said Tomoko Okura, a guide with a group of Japanese tourists waiting to board a ferry to the isle of Capri.
Her clients nodded in unison when asked if they had heard about Naples' waste crisis before coming to Italy.
Also waiting to board the hydrofoil was Claudio Velardi, a public relations professional and former political adviser, appointed head of tourism last month by the centre-left regional administration which is also in charge of waste policy.
Velardi kicked off a charm offensive at a tourism fair in Germany at the end of last month, part of a global effort to counter Naples' bad publicity from the waste crisis.
"We are doing an immediate communications campaign ... to send a clear message that the information about Naples they have received over recent months is only partially true, if not to say completely wrong," he told Reuters before heading for talks with Capri hoteliers.
Velardi conceded the clean-up might be viewed by some residents with skepticism.
"You have to start with the central areas and then expand out. That can seem a bit cynical for people who live in areas that have been suffering for many months, but we need to be practical and get a plan which proceeds day by day."
Among the cynics is opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi.
He has made the Naples waste crisis a central theme of his election campaign, blaming the centre left -- in power at local and national levels -- for the garbage piles that he says have tarnished the image of the entire country.
An opinion poll last week showed the "trash effect" may cost the centre left its 10-year hold on power on Naples' Campania region at the next month's election.
"The first task of the next government will be to liberate Naples and Campania from the mountain of waste that the Democratic Party has buried it in," Berlusconi, who will hold his final electoral rally in Naples, said in a campaign leaflet.
With the centre-left regional governor, Antonio Bassolino, under a criminal investigation for his role in the waste crisis, the national head of the Democratic Party, Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, has rarely mentioned Naples on the campaign stump.
Veltroni's camp retorts that Berlusconi, who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, did nothing then to solve the crisis which was officially declared an emergency in 1994.
"If everyone is guilty we shouldn't be looking for a scapegoat," said tourism chief Velardi. "We need to renew the entire political class, and not just in Naples."
While the politicians fight it out, the city counts the cost. The waste crisis not only scared away tourists, it also was one reason credit rating agency Moody's downgraded Naples' long-term debt earlier this month, saying it highlighted "the systematic challenges potentially weighing on Naples' finances."
As well as sorting out a workable waste disposal system, Naples will also have to rebuild a tourism industry where the timeless attractions of the Vesuvius volcano, Pompeii and the Amalfi coast, have been eroded by crime and garbage.
For Velardi, that means stressing the positive. "In the 1980s, New York was in crisis because of insecurity and street crime. But no New Yorker, no American dreamt of admitting it.
"But we are a bit self-destructive, we like to wallow in self-pity and describe things as worse than they are. My message is: come and see Naples like you went to see New York -- visit a city that is suffering amid the many wonderful things."
Editing by Mary Gabriel