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Rome hopes to reverse decline and relive La Dolce Vita

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Romans hope that an alignment of the stars will halt a generations-long decay of the Eternal City that is as beautiful as it is disorganised.


After years of declining investments, billions of euros of European Union, state and private funds are pouring into the coffers of Italy's capital ahead of a series of major events that could overwhelm the city without swift intervention.


Rome's economic health is relevant not only for its 2.8 million residents but also for Italy as a whole, as the city's metropolitan area generates more than 9% of national output.


The first big draw tees off in September when the Ryder Cup, pitting Europe's best golfers against their U.S. counterparts, is staged near Rome, attracting well-heeled visitors.


Their numbers will be dwarfed in 2025 when the city welcomes an anticipated 30 million tourists for a Holy Year, when Roman Catholics traditionally flock in to gain indulgences, which, they believe, might speed their passage to heaven.


An extraordinary Holy Year is also scheduled for 2033 to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rome is praying that in the meantime its bid to stage the EXPO world fair in 2030 proves successful, drawing inspiration from the country's financial capital Milan which used the 2015 EXPO to reinvigorate itself.


"Rome has all this pent-up energy that has been wasted for years but that can finally be released," Lorenzo Tagliavanti, president of Rome's Chamber of Commerce, told Reuters.


Italy's capital is already one of the most visited cities in the world with more than 15 million tourists coming here in 2022. However, flailing public services can make La Dolce Vita seem a remote dream, for both visitors and residents alike.


Marco Di Tillo, owner of a family-run hotel in the heart of Rome, had to dispose of the garbage himself last year because the rubbish company failed to provide a regular service.


"I couldn't keep it outside my hotel as it was stinking. So, every night I put the organic rubbish in the boot of my car and threw them in a dumpster," he said.


EXTRAORDINARY OPPORTUNITY


The capital's glory faded following the 2008 financial crisis that triggered a drastic drop in public investment. A corruption scandal that broke in 2014 brought much of the local administration to a standstill for years making the city unattractive for business investors.


National statistics office ISTAT says Rome's output stagnated at around 138 billion euros ($147 billion) between 2007 and 2020 while Milan's rose to 156 billion from 125 billion.


Roberto Gualtieri, a former economy minister who became mayor in 2021, said Rome had an "extraordinary opportunity" to become more beautiful and modern.


He has drawn up a 13 billion euro plan for public and private investment over the next five years, on the top of 5.8 billion earmarked if the EXPO 2030 project takes off.


"It is the biggest investment plan Rome has ever had," Gualtieri told Reuters.


Ahead of the 2025 Jubilee, the city has unveiled 87 projects, including making the area in front of the Vatican fully pedestrianised, resurfacing cracked pavements and opening new parks along the Tiber River.


With money from the EU post-pandemic recovery fund, the city plans to develop its research and innovation centres, renew its ageing bus fleet, improve the metro and expand cycle paths.


On Thursday, Gualtieri unveiled a 100 million euro project to install 5G infrastructure across the city. Multinational group BAI Communications will cover 80% of the investment.


"Milan was turned around by the EXPO and has become a city capable of attracting capital from all over the world. Rome is an incredible place and second to none," Luca Luciani, head of BAI Communications Italia, told Reuters.


In a further sign of investor confidence, big hotel brands including Bulgari, Rosewood and Four Seasons are turning historic buildings into 5-star hotels, with at least seven major luxury refurbishments under way.


GATEWAY TO EUROPE


With the support of Rome-born Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Gualtieri is campaigning hard for the EXPO bid.


Rome is up against Saudi Arabia's Riyadh, South Korea's Busan and Ukraine's Odesa. A decision is due in November.


The last time the event was held in Europe was in Milan, and the Rome committee argues that it is the continent's turn to host it again.


Gualtieri wants to use EXPO to develop the largely neglected eastern suburbs, creating a 20-km green path leading back into the ancient heart of Rome.


The centrepiece of the proposed EXPO site is a huge building called Le Vele ("Sails") by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. It was originally designed for the 2009 World Aquatics Championships, but was never finished and has come to symbolise Italy's difficulty in completing major projects.


But officials are confident they won't drop the ball this time.


"The number of projects put in place means that the city is alive and there is a collective will for change," LUISS Business School professor Marco Simoni said. "It will take time, but the outlook is positive." — Reuters


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