For Italy, the sky is the limit

ITALIAN Ambassador Antonino Provenzano says "the sky is the limit" when it comes to business potential and cooperation between Italy and Slovakia.
With more Slovaks taking Italian language courses than ever before, he is equally optimistic about a meaningful, ongoing cultural exchange between the two nations.
The Slovak Spectator spoke with the ambassador to get his views on these and other germane topics, including the tourist industry, in which Italy is a heavyweight.

ENERGETIC as always, Italian Ambassador Provenzano
photo: Beata Balogová

ITALIAN Ambassador Antonino Provenzano says "the sky is the limit" when it comes to business potential and cooperation between Italy and Slovakia.

With more Slovaks taking Italian language courses than ever before, he is equally optimistic about a meaningful, ongoing cultural exchange between the two nations.

The Slovak Spectator spoke with the ambassador to get his views on these and other germane topics, including the tourist industry, in which Italy is a heavyweight.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What are the main areas of interest for Italian business in Slovakia?

Antonino Provenzano (AP): I believe around 300 Italian firms are doing business in Slovakia at the moment, mainly small- and medium-sized ones. As for main interests, Italian companies are active in the manufacturing sector (shoes, textiles and garments, tools, furniture, house appliances), construction, leather processing, the automotive industry, insurance and services, especially sanitation.

Italy is also present in two Slovak banking institutions, VÚB and UniBanka, which have been doing quite well.

The time will come when products bearing "Made in Italy" tags will be produced outside the boundaries of my country - with Italian technology and Italian know-how - thus becoming "Made by Italy".

Slovakia could become a good example of this. We see also some potential in timber processing as far as Italian furniture manufacturers are concerned.

And we should not neglect the interest of Italian cinematographers who see Slovakia as a good shooting location with competitive costs. I would not be surprised if this segment of the film industry further develops in Slovakia.

TSS: Historically, Italian investors in Slovakia have been small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Will the structure of Italian investment here change?

AP: Italy's small- and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of our economy. We have roughly four million firms in Italy. Of these, almost all are SMEs, employing fewer than 100 workers.

More than 99 percent of our productive structure is made up of SMEs. Naturally, all of this gets reflected in Italy's approach to investments abroad. Certainly, we are also interested in bigger investments.

The electricity producer Enel is a fine example. [Enel is currently in negotiations with the Slovak government to acquire a 66-percent stake in Slovenské elektrárne.]

TSS: Do you think Italian companies have fully explored the business potential here? What are the obstacles to the development of business links, if there are any?

AP: The volume of Italian investment here shows that Italy considers Slovakia an effective business environment, thanks to the privatization process, the free market conditions and the competitive fiscal rates.

The Slovak workforce is generally well qualified, too. Besides overcoming the language barrier, the only challenge I see is the one that free-market economies present everywhere.

TSS: Do you see an interest in speaking Italian increasing in Slovakia?

AP: Italian and Slovak are fundamentally different languages, and the learning process is not easy. But Slovaks have a natural inclination towards foreign languages. The time it takes an average Slovak to learn how to express him/herself in Italian is relatively short.

The Italian Institute of Culture in Bratislava is recording a steady 20-percent increase in attendance per year in language courses. There is also a bilingual lyceum in Bratislava where around 200 students attend each year.

I have personally experienced, amongst the Slovak people a widespread interest towards Italy which brings with it openness to the language as well.

TSS: Is there a big Italian community in Slovakia?

AP: Not really. Based on the figures from our consulate, we have about 250 Italian citizens residing here. Most of those working in Italian firms are Slovak citizens.

The Italian management travels here, of course, but we don't really consider them as a part of the Italian community permanently living in Slovakia.

TSS: Italy has always been seen as a tourist paradise. Is there anything that such a small country like Slovakia could offer to Italian tourists?

AP: Italy definitely has global appeal. Based on UNESCO statistics, 40 percent of the world's cultural heritage is located in Italy.

Even without this benefit, though, Slovakia could do well in the tourist industry. You have a beautiful country and an old cultural heritage.

Even in little villages there are castles or other historical sites that could interest tourists.

Your thermal spa system has good potential. However, to attract Italian tourists, services must be of a high standard. The tourist market in the world is so spread out and sophisticated that travellers could choose to go pratically anywhere. Competition is a big challenge and services are crucial in this area.

TSS: Do you feel that Italy is visible enough in Slovakia?

AP: We should not mix up the meaning of "being popular" and "being visible". Italy is popular in Slovakia. As for Italy's visibility, I think more work could be done in this area, from the business, cultural and the arts points of view.

TSS: Has Slovakia's membership in the EU brought dramatic changes to the relationship between the countries?

AP: Italy has been very impressed by the way Slovakia pursued NATO and EU membership last year. We saw determination and the related success in those achievements.

Dramatic changes? The issues Italy and Slovakia will focus on in the future, on the strict bilateral way, will be more of an economic nature than the traditional facets of bilateral foreign policy issues.

Those will turn, more and more, towards Brussels. Meanwhile, the business opportunities and relations between the two countries will grow.

TSS: What are the major cultural projects that your embassy has been promoting?

AP: There are two institutions that operate under the umbrella of the Italian Embassy in Bratislava: the Italian Institute of Foreign Trade and the Italian Cultural Institute.

Focus has been placed on teaching Italian language and literature. And we cooperate with the departments of Italian studies at the universities of Bratislava, Nitra and Banska Bystrica.

I am pleased by the interest of Slovak people in Italian literature. I saw that the daily newspaper SME's book project includes several Italian authors. Italian culture in Slovakia is also present in the fields of concerts, translations, photographic exhibitions, lectures and festivals.

TSS: Slovakia struggles with differences between the developed western parts of the country and the less developed eastern regions. Italy has had similar struggles. What cure does your government apply to this issue?

AP: We still struggle with disparities between the north [of Italy] and the south. The northern regions reflect a more European approach to socio-economic life while the south takes a more Mediterranean one. It is not only a cultural and historical difference but also shows up in industry and infrastructures.

We have not completely solved the issues so we certainly cannot provide a fully efficient recipe for success. But I believe that one of the answers certainly lies in building up effective infrastructures, which can make the area more appealing to investors and business.

A careful evaluation of the culture of the people in less developed regions is also very important, so that models of economic development can be adjusted to reflect the characteristics of the people living in that region.

An evaluation of the natural environment is important, too. If - for example - you have a beautiful resort, it makes more sense to build hotels there and invest in the tourism aspects than to decide to develop manufacturing industries in that area.

Certainly, it is easier to build manufacturing plants than fully develop tourist resorts, but if the culture of the people and the character of the land are neglected, the short-term benefit of that industry might not be so desirable in a further future.

Economic development should be not parachuted in from above but rather spirited in from below.

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