AMALFI, Italy – For 15 years, he worked in the kitchen of a luxury resort, overseeing the dishwasher, storing ingredients, making sure guests in rooms of 1,200 euros per night could order seafood spaghetti at any time.
But this summer only brought a few guests. This hotel operates with a framework staff. At his home five miles inland, Ninfo Falcone, 43, competes with unemployment, but he can: save his savings, build a small greenhouse, buy pigs and rabbits to raise, and sometimes take lots of vegetables to sell at city.
“I switched from the work of five-star hotels to working on a piece of land,” Falcone said.
After operating behind the scenes near heaven, cooking food and washing sheets, workers on the Amalfi Coast now stand as a painful example of what can happen when borders are tightened, international travel collapses and tourists from hot spot countries – especially Americans – frozen.
In town after town, unemployment has exploded. Hotel and restaurant staff catering to honeymooners, tycoons and Hollywood stars slide into poverty. Some rely on you for help or scramble to find alternatives. Others, in deeper despair, have turned to local charities and city halls to distribute food.
“It was an economic tragedy,” said Rev. Francesco Della Monica, whose part of the Catholic charity, Caritas, had not until this year received requests for help from coastal residents.
For tourists who are still fortunate enough to arrive – mostly Europeans, and Italians on a weekend trip – the lack of crowds has made the Amalfi Coast alluring. But workers bear the costs of the change. Some hotels and restaurants that reopened offer staff positions only from bookkeeping or with reduced wages. Taxi drivers sit quietly all day and extend their shifts at midnight to get only part of what they have done.
“Look at this person,” said one of the drivers at the taxi stand, pointing at a colleague with a bag under his eyes. “He woke up for 23 hours.”
Even those who have jobs that seem very beautiful, like Vincenzo Parlatore, 39, an Amalfi coast official, have stories about how their lives have been ruined. During a lunch break, Parlatore said he found his job just a few weeks ago, a last resort after several months of unemployment. He has “practically zero” money left, he said. Since winter, three of her four children celebrate birthdays; no one received a gift.
“And now my wife’s birthday will arrive in two days,” he said quietly.
He spent last summer guiding wealthy tourists on a € 1,800 boat tour, and he began this year with plans to launch the same tour business himself. Just before the pandemic began, he bought a ship, an investment that soon became useless.
He pulled out his phone, showing the text message he had exchanged with creditors who wanted a piece of his first salary: € 600 for ship insurance, € 400 for the shipyard.
“I can’t sleep well,” Parlatore said before returning to duty on the beach. There, the striped umbrella stretches in rows of social distance. Tourists jump into the water. “I’m jealous of the opportunity to be carefree,” he said.
There is no feeling when tourism or workers in the region will recover. That will largely depend on how quickly the United States can control the virus and persuade Europeans to allow Americans to visit once more.
In some parts that depend on tourists in Italy, domestic travelers have made up for some of these losses. But the Amalfi Coast, which grew over decades into a holiday empire, depends on people who come from far away – people who spend once in a trip once in a lifetime, or those who have money to come every summer. In a normal year, foreigners outnumber Italy by almost six to one.
Americans are by far the most important citizenship for the region, according to local government data, which accounts for 25 percent of total visitors to the province of Salerno, home to the Amalfi Coast. More than 40 percent of people who entered the five-star Amalfi hotel last year came from the United States.
“That is a painful vacuum,” said Corrado Matera, head of local government for tourism.
In June, with Europeans returning to travel between countries on the continent, tourism in the province fell by 80 percent. The Amalfi coast is now filled on weekends but has a quieter environment and vice versa.
The Italian government has launched a subsidy and benefits program aimed at tourism workers. But most unemployed people on the Amalfi Coast say that the benefits are the least, amounting to several hundred dollars per month. Stanislao Balzamo, a community organizer, said the process of determining who qualifies is uneven and “chaotic.” Some do not accept anything.
Amalfi’s workforce is predominantly local residents – people born and raised in villages – and people tend to work seasonally, depending on large spring and summer salaries while earning less unemployment benefits in winter. But amid the pandemic, workers said wages for spring and summer jobs – little available – fell. One room cleaner, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being fired, said he had been in the same five-star resort for 30 years – which was once a salaried job. Now he is called every day and works less than half the normal time.
“I feel very disappointed,” said the worker. “The hotel has never done this before. To me, that smells. “
Nicola Vollaro, 64, has become a night porter at a five-star hotel, earns a monthly salary of nearly 1,500 euros and collects tips from a customer who he says is almost entirely American. Now, he has been without salary for months.
Shaving and wearing a sharp shirt, he has gone from city to city and door to door with a resume in plastic sheets. Among 30 restaurants and hotels, he only received one offer, where the monthly fee was 700 euros.
Nicola Vollaro drives a bus from Amalfi to Positano to find work.
The 11-mile distance between Positano and Amalfi can take hours to drive in the peak season. This year, the trip is much faster. (Federica Valabrega for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Nicola Vollaro drives a bus from Amalfi to Positano to find work. RIGHT: The 11 mile distance between Positano and Amalfi takes hours to drive in the peak season. This year, the trip is much faster. (Federica Valabrega for The Washington Post)
“This is a crisis, and this is the best I can offer,” Vollaro remembers the owner of the restaurant said.
One afternoon, he bought a 2 euro bus ticket to Positano, known among workers as the Amalfi Coast city with the richest tourists and the best wages. He had heard from a friend that a small company that was sending supplies to hotels and restaurants might be recruiting.
“This is the last step before despair,” Vollaro said.
A trip that can take hours in normal time takes 30 minutes. Outside the window, he could see all the reasons people visited: charming beaches at the base of rickety stairs, small plots of farmland with plump lemons, luxurious resorts that seemed to be nailed to thin stone surfaces.
Vollaro got off at his bus stop, holding a piece of paper with the company address. The search for it took him even higher, going up one step and another, until he was far from the tourist zone. Above, clouds cupped the mountain peak. Below, some of the boats in the bay are just spots.
He came to a winding road and finally found a company. The owner is in front. Some workers are loading crates of bottled water into flat trucks.
Vollaro told the owner that he was looking for a job. Their conversation is short.
“They are looking for someone younger,” Vollaro said moments later, walking away.
Even if he can do the job, the pay is almost non-existent – 700 euros per month.
“I’m too young to retire and I’m too old to work,” Vollaro said, returning down the hill.
Zig-zag walked along the remote streets of Positano, past one closed hotel and then another, he complained that the city had become a “grave.” He chatted with a restaurant owner who told him he only rehired two of his 16 employees. He pointed out the place where he had knocked, looked for work, found nothing.
“Enough with this place,” Vollaro said, and he wondered whether the next step would be to look elsewhere, move from the coast, give up on tourism, at least for a while. “I’m done with this,” he said.
He called the Amalfi Coast a “fake cake” – towering, glorious, beautiful.
“But,” he said, “that won’t support you.”