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‘More local, more authentic’: How can Italy move toward responsible tourism in future?
As Italy gets reacquainted with tourism after the pandemic, the country's biggest destinations have had a chance to rethink the way things are done. American writer Mark Hinshaw in Italy's Marche region looks at how the industry could become more responsible and sustainable, and at what's already changing.
Published: 17 June 2021 12:17 CEST
Visitors have returned to Italian hotspots like Venice - but are those cities now changing their attitudes to mass tourism? Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
Yesterday we ate in a nice restaurant.
Eighteen months ago had I written such a mundane, boring sentence, I would have likely tapped the “Delete” key forthwith. However, it is entirely amazing how much pleasure there is sitting at a table covered with cloth and scattered with platters of well-prepared foods.
We chatted with the staff, and the cook (the mom of the household) made us a complimentary special dish – a totally unexpected “thank you” for sticking with them when all they could do to survive was offer take-out and delivery in aluminum boxes. Those meals were good but I realized how quickly the taste can recede when there is an intervening period of even five minutes while in transit.
So we were smiling and laughing and having a splendid time over a typical two hour Italian pranzo. One writer recently compared this period to the end of Prohibition, when everyone felt released from its imposed strictures. But of course, we had to do it.
I am hugely relieved whenever I see that the rates of Covid infection and death for Italy are almost back down to zero. It is predicted that the entire Apennine Peninsula and its nearby islands will soon be designated a “white” zone – meaning the removal of almost all restrictions.
Friends in Florence report that, so far as they know, the city’s famed museums and galleries are still looking to spread artworks around to various venues in the area so that crowds can be dispersed and more locales can benefit from spending by visitors.
There is really no reason why everything has to be jammed into the centro storico, while waiting crowds perch on every horizontal surface and eat in overpriced restaurants.
Mark Michanowicz, an American who has lived in Venice for decades, operates local tours and events on traditional sailing craft. He gave me his rundown on efforts there. The initial attempt to use turnstiles to meter out the crowds just created chaos and was abandoned. Now, fees are likely to be tacked onto the costs of various activities and tickets. Already, the main cathedral charges an entry fee when it was free before the pandemic.
These measures may be slow in coming because few places have yet to see massive influxes. It will take a while for numbers to ramp back up; all aspects of the tourism industry have to calibrate their business models. To be sure, the future won’t be a continuation of the past.
The gargantuan cruise ships were kicked out of Venice, as they had no business entering the Giudecca Canal simply for the effortless photo ops that a view of San Marco gave their sedentary passengers. No longer will the delicate, ancient scale of the city be overwhelmed by floating behemoths. The city and the national government are now in hot debate about where to put them; there are few places where they are not problematic by some measure.
But good riddance; ten cruise ships at the port at the same time, disgorging 15,000 people, is almost obscene. Unfortunately, Venice may see a few more ships docking in the center until a new location is prepared.
The MSC Orchestra cruise ship was the first to arrive in Venice in 17 months, on June 3rd, 2021. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
My hope is that, eventually, the vast, charmless port area of the island, which is largely used for parking cars and which most tourists never see, can be turned into real neighborhoods, allowing Venetian families to return to the city that had been consumed with airbnbs – almost ruining the place by turning it into an absurdly pricey theme park.
A whole new quarter could contain just homes and shops – no hotels, no visitor attractions, no over-priced restaurants with trite tourist menus. Just quiet streets and squares for ordinary people to live, like Venice used to have not long ago.
Perhaps local artisans would even return, instead of the low-quality blown glass molded into cheap trinkets small enough for airline carry-on bags.
Several regions in Italy have been considering how they can attract visitors but without having everyone pile into the same damn locations. One thing that would help immensely is if travel writers would stop lazily doing their “Top Ten” lists — which are always the same places. Does the world really need another article about “Discovering the Cinque Terre” or the “Secrets of the Amalfi Coast”?
Over the past year, I’ve been collaborating with Italian colleagues on some principles that could direct people toward tourism that is more socially, economically, and environmentally responsible. These principles could guide marketing efforts, promotional literature, ratings of lodgings, and public investment.
The country has – almost literally – thousands of wonderful places to visit; there is no reason why Rome or Florence or Naples should bear the brunt of sharp seasonal fluctuations. More places and more people would potentially benefit from a few simple guidelines.
We offer these with the thought that they might also be applicable to your own part of the world. They are applicable to all forms of transport, destinations, and lodging:
Does it minimize environmental impacts?
Does it minimize negative effects on the natural environment? Negative effects include degradation of landforms and sea bottoms, air quality, carbon emissions, water quality, beaches, and estuaries, and the consumption of fossil fuels.
Does it protect historic resources?
Does it display a respect and careful regard for preserving and interpreting the cultural heritage of a place? This includes architecture, archaeology, arts, history, indigenous and successive peoples, and traditional settlement patterns.
Does it create local opportunities?
Does it stimulate and support existing businesses in a place, as well as create local employment with “living wages?” This includes encouraging travelers to purchase goods, food, and services from local merchants rather than buying imports or patronizing international corporations.
Does it provide authentic experiences?
Does it expose people to experiences that are true representations of a place, with local guides, participants, and instructors? This includes minimizing “packaged” experiences that buffer travelers from the actual language, culture, and customs of a place, thereby reducing an understanding of a destination.
Does it leave a gentle footprint?
Does it minimize the disruption of the local supply of housing, the normal type of daily businesses, and the day to day life of a place? This includes paying for impacts that are unavoidable through entry fees, ticketing surcharges, and carbon offsets.
As we re-acquaint ourselves with travel, let’s do it right.
A version of this article appeared on Seattle’s Post Alley.
Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who moved to Le Marche with his wife two years ago. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.
OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?
Choosing which coast to visit in Italy can be a tough call, particularly if you’re planning to spend most of the time sunbathing and swimming. Reporter Silvia Marchetti shares her insights on the pros and cons of both.
Published: 4 May 2022 14:53 CEST Updated: 7 May 2022 10:00 CEST
The Tyrrhenian west coast and the Adriatic east one are very different, and each come with their pros and cons.
In my view the Tyrrhenian side of the boot wins, because even though it tends to be more crowded due to the many art cities located along it, its beaches have fewer facilities for families and the shores are more ragged, with rocks and cliffs ideal for solo and adventurous young people.
The Amalfi coast’s picturesque fishermen villages, or Liguria’s Cinque Terre, feature tiny pebble stone bays cut between high cliffs with little space for sun umbrellas and beds.
The Adriatic shore is one long line of adjacent beach facilities that run for kilometres from the northern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region down south to Puglia.
Beaches in the seaside towns of Rimini and Riccione, located along the chaotic Riviera Romagnola renowned also for its wild nightlife, feature up to 50 rows of sun beds and umbrellas in summer.
More sunbeds than sand… Some parts of Italy are heavily built-up with an abundance of services. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)
Beach facilities there resemble open-air condominiums where there are children’s playgrounds, restaurants, sleeping areas, dance floors and changing rooms for clients.
One good thing, though, is the constant presence of bay watchers and lifeguards at each facility, who are present throughout all eastern coastal regions and very helpful if you don’t constantly want to look after the kids. Beach resorts often come with big seaside multi-floor hotel buildings that look like city offices.
To escape the crowds on the Adriatic coast you need to pick niche, rocky spots with very few beaches such as the Conero Hill in the Marche region and the Gargano promontory in Puglia.
While the Adriatic coast’s wide and easily accessible beaches are great for children and older people, the sea is not always clear and there are just a few top scuba diving and snorkelling spots, such as the beautiful Tremiti islands.
The Tyrrhenian sea, which is deeper than the Adriatic, is packed with diving sites: Ustica island in Sicily and Ventotene isle in Latium are Italy’s top diving meccas brimming with barracudas and giant groupers.
There are also more protected marine reserves along the west coast, which guarantees a pristine environment, and more free beaches without facilities and lifeguards. While this ‘wild’ aspect may be attractive to many, it could make some beaches not suitable for families with small kids.
Family friendly beaches tend to draw in more crowds. (Photo by ludovic MARIN / AFP)
On the other hand, given its relatively shallow waters, the Adriatic is blessed with reasonable stocks of fish, so if you long for fishing expeditions it’s the perfect destination.
However the real plus point of the east coast is its strategic location facing other Mediterranean countries and allowing tourists, particularly from the US, to expand their holidays and exploit Italy as the door to the ‘Old Continent’. From the ports of Bari and Ancona, ferry boats depart to Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania.
The winning asset of the Tyrrhenian, other than its translucent waters and baby powder beaches, is the huge artistic heritage it offers visitors. The west coast boasts the top must-see Italian cities usually picked by global tourists (Rome, Naples, Florence) which all lie, or are close to the sea – except for Venice (the gem of the Adriatic).
The cultural appeal of the west side makes the central national highway, the A1 – otherwise known as Autostrada del Sole – a very trafficky infrastructure.
There are also mesmerising fishermen villages with a mythological vibe along the Tyrrhenian coast, such as Gaeta and Sperlonga, where it is said Odysseus, the legendary Greek king, landed during his wanderings.
Plus, most of Italy’s UNESCO heritage-listed sites are located along or near the west shore. For instance, the archaeological excavations of Pompeii are among the top tourist hotspots in Italy.
Generally speaking, the appeal of popular places along the west coast inevitably translates into more expensive hotels and travelling costs but it depends on the specific location.
A photo shows a general view of the archaeological site of Pompeii, near Naples. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)
The major west coast lure for sea dogs, sailing amateurs and fans of the tan is that nearly all Italian islands are located in the Tyrrhenian sea and reachable from the mainland.
The two island regions of Sardinia and Sicily are accessible by ferry boat from Naples and Civitavecchia, while the Tuscan archipelago, the Pontine islands and Sicily’s dozens of ‘satellites’ such as the Aeolian, Egadi and Pelagie isles are tropical paradises just a stone’s throw from the cultural highlights.
Even though both coasts are stunning and are worth exploring, personally, I’d chose the Tyrrhenian over the Adriatic any day, and not just because I’m a Roman who lives in Rome.
It has a diversified offer of artistic sites and beaches, inlets and cliffs that allow you to savour the most of Italy in just a few days.
The last time I rented my beach home south of Rome to a French couple, I thought they’d laze all day under the sultry sun. Instead they drove across half of Italy in 14 day trips, visiting Florence, Naples, Sorrento and Calabria.