ROME, July 25 (Xinhua) -- Italy says it has surpassed France to become Europe's second most popular tourist destination, a claim that shines new light on the importance of the tourism sector in the country's otherwise moribund economy.
According to Italy's National Tourism Agency's data released recently, tourists from Europe spent a total of 216 million nights in Italy in 2018, which was more than the 141 million nights in France in the same year. Spain remained the most popular European destination with over 300 million.
Anna Maria Pisini, a tourism sector analyst at survey firm Opinioni, told Xinhua that the tourist industry is one of the few parts of the economy still going strong.
"Most economic sectors are stagnant, but tourist arrival continues to grow," she added.
Italy's overall economy grew just 0.9 percent in 2018, according to data from Italy's National Statistics Institute, with exports, industrial production, and financial services all growing less than 2 percent compared with 2017. But the number of tourist arrivals grew by 2.8 percent.
However, Italy remains just behind France for total worldwide tourist visits, with 420 million tourist nights, compared with 429 million for France, according to Italy's National Statistics Institute.
Italy can close that gap as well, as it is expected to benefit from an increase in tourists from China following Italy's participation in the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative.
All told, the National Tourism Agency said that tourists from Europe spent 42 billion euros (46.8 billion U.S. dollars) in Italy last year, accounting for around 13 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
Without the growth in tourism, the country's gross domestic product would have shrunk 0.6 percent last year instead of the 0.9-percent expansion it achieved.
"There is no doubt that tourism has become one of the main economic drivers in Italy," said economist Javier Noriega from investment bank Hildebrandt and Ferrar in an interview. "The economy would be worse off without tourism, but tourism also represents its own set of problems."
Noriega's words were echoed by Paola Fagioli, head of the tourism division within Legambiente, Italy's largest environmental lobby group.
According to Fagioli, the arrival of so many tourists each year stresses the country's infrastructure as well as taxing the cultural and historical sites that draw the tourists in the first place.
"Yes, tourists spend money in the country and help the economy, but they also force governments to spend more" on roads, public transport, water and waste treatment systems and others, she said.