More than just a leaning tower – Pisa builds its economy on high-tech

By WILLIAM TELFORD, Business Editor/Plymouth Herald


The river Arno in Pisa, Italy

PISA may be famous for its leaning tower but the city’s wealth is based on far more than just tourism, with high-tech manufacturing seen as the future.

The city, with a metropolitan population of about 200,000, has a thriving economy which encompasses a range for firms and sectors.

Its GVA, at about 10.5million euros, is the second largest in Tuscany, only the larger city of Florence being ahead of it.

And there are thriving business sectors across the city and its surrounding area – the Camera di Commercio (Chamber of Commerce) has 52,000 companies in its membership.

That’s because all firms in Italy must belong to a chamber, and pay a sort of annual tax to fund it, although it is very inexpensive.

The Camera, housed in a large city-centre office block, carries out a range of functions, including administrative and market regulation activities, business studies and analysis, and economic development and promotion.

So it is well placed to offer an overview of the economy of the Tuscan city and its surroundings.

Although tourism is vital, with two million people visiting the leaning tower last year, and more than 4,000 accommodation and food outlets in the city, there are almost as many businesses involved in agriculture, 7,000 construction firms and 14,000 companies working in retail, wholesale and automotive, many being SMEs.

Of the 171,000 working population, about 34,000 are involved in trade, accommodation and food.

There are 6,000 manufacturing businesses, of which about a third are involved in another key industry: leather production, responsible for high-quality products for the European fashion industry.

“Pisa is a vibrant economy,” said Alberto Susini, in charge of statistics and economic studies at the Camera di Commercio, the Chamber of Commerce.

But he explained Pisa, like the country as a whole, is still recovering from the global economic turndown of the past seven years, termed “the crisis” in Italy.

And that important leather industry has been affected by cheap competition abroad, notably from Brazil.

“The crisis hit Pisa’s many furniture and shoe-making sectors, where we are also in competition with low-wage countries,” said Mr Susini.

“Pisa is one of three main places where skins are produced. We specialise in leather for shoes and bags, but there’s now strong competition.”

However, the city’s tanners are now fighting back and targeting the Brazilian market.

And there is other manufacturing too, including the large Piaggio motor scooter factory just outside the city, and also Siemens and Smith International plants.

There is also a thriving furniture industry, with much of its produce exported to Russia.

The other main employer is education, with the city’s three universities a huge wealth generator.

In addition to the cash thousands of students bring to the city, Pisa is developing a reputation for spinning off high-tech companies, particularly in micro-electronics and robotics.

“There are a lot of companies in the biomedical and science fields,” said Laura Granata, head of the promotion and enterprise development unit at the Camera.

“High-tech can be a good chance for Pisa, but the companies are very small, often a spin-off from the universities.

“And they often don’t have the business competency for growth. From time to time we try to support these companies, but it’s not easy.

“In general we are supporting services for the internationalisation of companies, training for exports.

“Firms have to go abroad but don’t know how to do it. We try to support them.”

Nevertheless, exports are impressive with three times as much exported from Pisa to the UK as came the other way, in 2014.

And Fabrizio Quochi of the promotion and internationalisation department, stressed: “Employment is growing a lot. The future is very positive because we have the tower and the airport.

“The tower is still leaning and the airport has reached five million passengers, in and out.”

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