5 Things I Hate About Rome’s New Tourist Tax

* Update:  as of September 1st, 2014, Rome’s tourist tax will increase to €3 per person, per night (maximum 10 nights) for all guests over 10 years of age, to €3 per person for 1 and 2 star hotels, and €3.50 per person for 3 star hotels, B&Bs and vacation rentals.

You come to Rome for the food, the sunshine, some nice thin, crisp pizza and cheap, good wine.  You don’t come to Italy because it’s neat and orderly, and you certainly don’t come to learn something about politics (unless you’re studying failed democracies and corrupt, oversexed politicians).  So maybe when you read my complaints below about this new tax you’ll think, “Well, it’s Rome – what do you expect?”.  And I agree – I’ve lived here long enough that a colossally stupid idea like a tourist tax doesn’t surprise me one bit.  But I also own a hotel, The Beehive, so I’ve been following the issue closely and see a series of points demonstrating not just how bad an idea it is in general, but how badly it’s been “thought out” and implemented.  Of all the criticism I read from the Italian news, none of it really addresses the problems I see with it.

Some background:  as of 1 January 2011, all tourists (even Italians from other cities) coming to Rome are subject to a tourist tax (tassa soggiorno) to be collected by the establishment where they are staying.  The tax is 1 euro for stays at campgrounds, and 3 euros per person for stays at 4- or 5-star hotels and 2 euros for stays anywhere else whether a 1 star hotel (like The Beehive) or a bed and breakfast.  Children under 10 don’t pay at all and the tax caps out at 10 nights.  If you’re coming for medical reasons you also don’t have to pay.  There’s also a tax at all the paid beaches for non-Roman residents (free public beaches in Italy are rare), which is even more unthinkable.  Maybe I’m the odd man out here, but you couldn’t pay me to spend the day at Ostia, let alone ask me to pay a tax to sit there, ass-to-shoulder, frying in the sun on an already overpriced lounge chair.

There’s no doubt that Rome is severely over budget, especially due to the drop in tourism over the last few years, meaning less income and less sales tax revenue collected.  The theory behind all this offered by its supporters, however, is that Rome has many tourists who aren’t really paying their keep, and it’s only fair for them to share in the enormous expense to maintain the Eternal City.

We, as hotel owners, found out about this in mid-December.  We weren’t contacted or notified by any government agency – not even the tourist board who certainly knows we’re there when they do “routine” police checks to make sure everything is “in order”.  On December 23rd, I believe, it was finally approved-approved (no, that isn’t a typo – in Italy there’s approved, and then there’s still the possibility that it’ll just sort of go away.  So approved-approved means, yes, you really gotta do it), and still at the time of writing this, a month later, there has been no information given as to how we have to account for the money collected.  All we know at this point is that every 3 months we’ll have to pay what we’ve received, but there is no understanding of what, if any, documentation will have to be submitted, or should even be kept on-site for those “routine checks” I keep mysteriously putting in quotes (perhaps that will be another post!).

So we’re a month in and there’s been lots of criticism as well as talk among all sorts of crazy politicians to adopt this tax in other cities too, maybe even all the regional capitals.  The national hotel association, Federalberghi, is planning a day of no reservations on March 17th, 2011, in protest, which should cost the country millions in losses.  That’ll show them!  We’ll just leave tourists stranded for a day and pay our staff to catch up on uploading some pics to Facebook.

Many people who support the tax have noted that other major cities, like New York and London, have a similar tax, so it should be fair in Rome as well.  Well, here I’m getting to the heart of my post – as an American I feel qualified to comment on just the highlights of why Rome ain’t New York:

1.  Nothing in Rome works well.  Compared to NY, Rome can feel like a developing country.  Worse, maybe, in some ways.  I’ve lived in a developing country, and there are many things that run much better there than in Rome.  So the tax isn’t really to recoup money spent on the city and it certainly isn’t going to be used to improve it.  For tourists from developed nations, Rome is an embarrassment – disabled and riding the subway to the Vatican?  If you managed to make it down to the platform, plan to stay down there as there’s likely no working elevator at your destination to get up to street level.   The list of shortcomings thanks to city administrators is long, but let’s just agree on the basic premise here – comparing New York to Rome  in terms of how the city is run is laughable.

2.  There are no “servizi” that are free that the public is utilizing.  You pay for the buses and subways.  You pay to go in the Colosseum.  You pay to eat, sleep and everything else you do as a tourist and the places where you eat and sleep are already paying the taxes to collect the rubbish you create.  Maybe you partake of good, clean Roman water?  Hard to argue that you would have to pay for something that runs continually into the sea whether someone drinks it or not.  So what is it that tourists use that require upkeep?  Free public toilets?  There aren’t any.  Clean streets and sidewalks and lack of graffiti-free walls?  Ha.  Medical care?  Well, yes, that is free for tourists, but that is the one area they are NOT taxing, rather than just not making it free anymore for non-residents who use the system.

3.  In the US, all taxes – both sales tax and hotel tax – are excluded from the base, published price of everything you buy.  It is a different sales culture completely and we are used to seeing a price tag and adding on all the hidden bits.  In Italy, and everywhere else in Europe, the prices are ALWAYS inclusive of sales tax (IVA), so whereas in NY, all hotels publish their pre-tax prices, and apply the same tax, in Rome, everyone publishes their post tax prices and then has no clear understanding of whether that includes or excludes the tourist tax.  No specifications have been given by the government either.  The playing field in NY is level – all prices are without taxes and all taxes are the same for everyone as a percentage of the price.  In Rome many will publish their price without the tax to seem more competitive and charge it on arrival and someone else will keep their prices the same not wanting to deflect tourists and then lose the money themselves.  In other words, without regulating how this tax is communicated, there’s loads of room for confusion, which is already pretty standard in Italy.

4.  The prices that vary between a hostel and a 3 star hotel are from 20 euros a night to 300 euros a night.  The tax is the same.   By the way, there’s no regulation in Rome to control prices so hotels can charge whatever they want, regardless of their star rating, so long as it’s been communicated in advance to the authorities.  This means that for a 3-star hotel guest, 1.5% of his stay is in this extra tax.  But a hosteler, who is coming specifically on a tight budget, is paying roughly 10% more per night.  Not exactly a fair deal for owners in the budget sector, nor does it make Rome the likely choice for those traveling on the cheap.

5.  More illegality.  Here’s how it works: some sly person (a “furbone” as they’re called in Italy) will charge tourists the tax and not report it and pocket the 2 euros per night (which for a 3-bedroom B&B could equal 3,000-4,000 euros per year).

For those of you who don’t read Italian, the total expected intake here is 80,342,276 euros per year.  I’m not against that at all.  Rome could certainly use it and even if 80,000,000 of it goes to getting the city out of debt and only 300,000 goes to removing some graffiti and dog poo (and the other 42,000 will end up in someone’s pocket), that would be an improvement.

But if we’re going to compare Rome to NY, let’s also follow the example of American thoroughness – let’s make this new tax logical and easy to understand and implement.  What we don’t need is another Roman mess that costs tourists and the travel industry more money.

by Steven Brenner