Rome Business School research, “The cultural industry in Italy: the impact of the pandemic and the digital turn”

Italy is among the top 10 countries in Europe for best digital-tourist experience: 73% of museums conduct online visits, virtual reality activities and digital services are increasing

  • Italy rose from 21st place in 2018 to 9th in 2021 for integration between technology and digital, thus outperforming Germany (18th) and France (19th);
  • Today, post-pandemic, 7 out of 10 museums in Italy (73 percent) conduct online visits, growing: virtual tours on web platforms (+25.4 percent), online reservation service (+20.4 percent), their presence on social channels (+18.6 percent), online collection promotion and presentation activities (+18 percent), and distance learning educational courses (+13.6 percent);
  • Performing arts and music were the arts and entertainment sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, -90% and -76%, respectively, in 2020;
  • Recovering the fastest among Italy’s cultural industries are auctions: +47% in the last year;
  • Italy ranks in the world’s top 10 for NFT revenues and holds the record for an NFT sale of a musealized work, Michelangelo’s Tondo Doni;
  • Arrivals in Italy are growing more than the European average: as of 2020, Italy ranks fourth in Europe in terms of presences in accommodation establishments, with a 13.4 percent share of the total EU28 countries;
  • PNRR makes available 7 billion to improve the attractiveness of villages, seismic safety and the protection and enhancement and rural landscape.

Rome, May 31, 2022. Rome Business School,part of Planeta Formación y Universidades created in 2003 by De Agostini and the Planeta Group, has published the research “The Cultural Industry in Italy: the Impact of the Pandemic and the Digital Turn” edited by Giosuè Prezioso, professor of the Master in Arts and Culture Management, Alexandra Solea, Program Director of the Executive Master in Art and Cultural Heritage Management, and Valerio Mancini, Director of the RBS Research Center. The study investigates the consequences of Covid-19 on the Italian cultural industry and the role of digitization in the economic recovery of tourism.

The pandemic has marked a before and after in the tourism industry. In Italy, compared to February 2020, spending by foreign travelers in the first months of 2021 fell by -79 percent, while spending by Italians abroad fell by -69.5 percent, says Deloitte (2021). According to ISTAT data, the pandemic has resulted in 245 million lost presences and 14 million less turnover than in 2019 (for an industry worth 14 percent of Italian GDP). However, this deep crisis has caused a real digital revolution in the world of culture in Italy: VR, gamification, NFT and virtual guided tours have become daily tools of a great many creative and cultural institutions, which now involve thousands of “virtual visitors” and 4.0 tourists.

Cultural tourism in Italy: volumes and trends

In Italy, already pre-pandemic the culture sector recorded rather heterogeneous data regarding its fruition. In fact, the decade 2008-2018 ended showing different trends: theater lost almost 600 thousand users (-4.8%), cinema balanced with about 28 million users (-0.4%), light music concerts increased with +2.8%, but it was museums, and archaeological sites and monuments that were the most successful, respectively +14% more visitors to museums, and31% more visitors to archaeological sites and monuments, compared to the previous decade. However, however, as mentioned above, 2020 then saw a frightening drop in access: although 92% of Italy’s museum facilities remained open to the public, there was a -72% drop in visitors to museums, archaeological sites and monument complexes compared to the previous year. 

Through the analysis of ISTAT data, it was possible to see that, thanks to the slowdown of anti-covid measures, already in 2021, Italy’s historic-artistic cities welcomed 43.6 million tourist arrivals, an increase of +15.3 percent compared to the figure five years ago. In fact, in terms of spending, in 2021, cultural vacations covered about 40 percent of the total spending of foreigners in Italy (amounting to 39 billion euros) with the United States (2.8 billion euros), Germany and France (1.5 billion euros each) at the top of the list as countries of origin and with the highest spending capacity.

Rome is confirmed as the main tourist destination with 6.4 percent of total arrivals detected while the regions most affected by international spending on cultural vacation are Lazio, Veneto, Tuscany, Lombardy and Campania: these 5 regions together account for 81.3 percent of total spending on cultural vacation by foreigners. On the other hand, in terms of the largest relative increases in attendance, Sicily (+7.3%), Basilicata (+6.5%), Piedmont (+6.3%) and Emilia-Romagna (+6%) are at the top. The numbers are therefore back to positive: accommodation establishments recorded more than 420 million presences and 123 million arrivals, noting growth above the European average. Italy to date is still fourth in Europe in terms of presences in accommodation establishments, with a share of 13.4 percent of the total of EU28 countries (ISTAT).  Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom together cover more than half (55.9 percent) of the total tourist presences in the 28-state European Union.

Toward the digitization of culture in Italy

Precisely as a result of the pandemic, Italy has managed to emerge among the countries in Europe that have been most successful in positivating the digito-cultural transition. In fact, despite having witnessed first a +330% of registered tourists in the decade 2008-2018, and then loss of -300% in the year 2020 alone, Italy has seen a substantial upswing thanks to the proliferation of interesting digito-tourist realities.

Indeed, the need has triggered an unprecedented digitization process, bringing the Belpaese and its digito-tourism experience into the European top 10, according to the Digital Economy and Society Index Report (DESI) 2021. The DESI index measures a country’s rate of digitization of services, businesses and digital society at the European level, and shows how Italy has risen from 21st place in 2018 to 9th in 2021 for the integration of technology and digital, thus outperforming Germany (18th) and France (19th). 

According to data from ISTAT (2022), seven out of ten museums (73 percent) have adopted online visit modes, thereby increasing digital initiatives and services. Among the most popular services are virtual tours on web platforms (25.4 percent), online visit booking service (20.4 percent), presence on social channels (18.6 percent), collection promotion and presentation activities (18 percent), and distance learning educational courses (13.6 percent).

With the PNRR, National Recovery and Resilience Plan, it is planned to allocate substantial resources to the culture industry (more than 7 billion euros) including measures for digitization, innovation and competitiveness. The PNRR’s largest investments in the Italian culture industry are intended to increase the attractiveness of villages, seismic safety, and the protection and enhancement of architecture and the rural landscape. According to Giosuè Prezioso, one of the authors, the PNRR “seems to be prepared on a scale logic: it starts from the large territory (the village, seismic areas and then rural areas) and then moves on to platforms, museums, libraries, cinemas, parks and finally to human resources.” All these actors share the path toward achieving two macro goals: sustainability and digitization. While facilities are made accessible, efficient and converted into ‘more sustainable’ realities through the removal of architectural and cognitive barriers, energy efficiency, security and greenery, they also turn to digital and technology to complete the transition-thanks in part to resources for platforms, programs and mentoring for industry players. 

Accomplices of travel – and therefore of tourism – are transportation: these, too, in the Italy of the PNRR, are active players in the common goal of giving back to the country a new map. In fact, the project conceived by Amodo, RFI and the FS Italiane Group, which has mapped a virtual territory of more than 100,000 square kilometers, connected by more than 3,000 railway stations, is called “Atlas of Soft Mobility.” An ambitious project and an important contribution aimed at giving Italy a new face, greater attractiveness also thanks to more agile travel and new connections.

Italy, a leading smart destination for digital art

During the pandemic, the leitmotif of the tourism industry has been the word “technology.” The visual and performing arts industries gave birth to entrepreneurs, projects and actions that not only “saved” the industry, but also accelerated the processes of digitization, access and internationalization promised by various international agreements.

While even before Covid, Italy boasted projects and records concerning NFTs (non-fungible tokens), metaverse and gamification, the last two years have caused the seed of tourist-cultural digitization to proliferate within an increasing number of cultural, educational and academic institutions. In fact, today, Italy ranks in the world’s top 10 for NFT revenues and holds the record for an NFT sale of a musealized work: the Tondo Doni by Michelangelo, which sold for 240,000 euros. In addition, it was Italian Andrea Bonaceto who co-directed the first self-portrait made by an android: he did it together with Sophia, the well-known robot who was given the first citizenship in history (the Saudi one). Another virtuous example is the Arch of Peace in Milan, which turns out to be the first public monument to enter the metaverse.

The research highlights multiple projects and virtuous Made in Italy examples of digital use that has boosted and kept access to culture alive. Among them: in Turin, the Egyptian Museum of Turin’s “Walks of the Director” initiatives, through which the Director promoted guided and immersive walks (in virtual reality) narrated by himself, and the launch of the video game “Return to Deir-el Medina.”

A virtuous case to point out is that of the University of Bari, which networked with the most iconic cultural realities of Puglia and produced NFTs for each of them, which, when auctioned at the University, created funds in safeguards for them. Moved by the contingencies, Italy’s education system also changed considerably during and after the pandemic: tech giants such as Microsoft proposed edutainment initiatives to individual and small schools, and many other realities took proactive action, a 4.0 revolution that affected students, families and teachers, as well as universities, museums and the territory. Also at the Rome Business School, the first interactive and integrated course in NFT, metaverse, robotics, artificial intelligence and VR in Italy was launched, characterized – by the school’s vocation – by a special focus on the world of cultural activities management, thus co-participating in the 4.0 revolution applied to the worlds of tourism, cultural activities and education through the heterogeneous cultural experiences of international students.

The impact of the pandemic on arts, entertainment and cultural activities in Italy

In 2020, the cultural economy lost about 31 percent of its revenues: the total turnover of the Cultural and Creative Industries (CCI) in the EU28 was reduced to €444 billion, a net decrease of €199 billion compared to 2019. With such a huge loss in turnover, the cultural and creative economy emerges as one of the hardest hit in Europe, slightly less than air transport but more than tourism (-27 percent) and the automotive sector (-25 percent). The shock waves of the Covid-19 crisis are being felt in all CCIs, with performing arts and music as the most affected sectors, -90% and -76% respectively between 2019 and 2020; the video game industry seems to have been the only one to hold up (+9%) in 2020. Nevertheless, many companies have successfully adapted to a new system, and the market has shown great resilience amid continued uncertainty through 2021, with the recovery supported by robust growth, particularly in the auction sector (+47%).


As for the performing arts sector, as a result of Covid, opera, theater activity and concert activity are the most affected while circus and traveling show activities seem to be saved as these are usually summer and outdoor events. Data from the Ministry of Culture illustrate the distribution of live arts across the territory: Lombardy is the region where the largest number of shows were held in 2020 (8,832), and Valle d’Aosta is at the bottom of the list (123). The second largest Italian region in terms of number of live performances is Emilia-Romagna, followed by Lazio and Veneto. The regions with the fewest shows are Basilicata and Molise.  

Already in the coming months we will see the emergence of new formats and products, more and more responsive to new demands and needs, that go to create new forms of increasingly digital and innovative cultural experience, aimed at meeting the needs of an audience increasingly seeking the artistic avant-garde.

“The scenario is certainly complex but also rapidly changing, characterized, however, by trends that are being consolidated. We can say with certainty that the digital-tourism sector is one of the great global drivers of the economy and development and as such will continue to play an extremely relevant role for our country,” says Alexandra Solea.

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