‘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.

‘More local, more authentic’: How can Italy move toward responsible tourism in future?
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.

EXPLAINED: What are the rules in Italy’s coronavirus ‘white zones’?

Of course, what this also means is a soon-to-be tsunami of tourism. We are eager to welcome back our relatives and friends and colleagues who, pre-pandemic, were a frequent part of our lives. 

One of the few benefits of this long disruption of human behavior (aside from saving lives) is that places that were hot destinations for visitors have been able to rethink how they manage the seasonal inundations.  

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

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. 

READ ALSO: Virus-hit Venice delays planned tourist tax until 2022

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.

READ ALSO: ‘They’re back’: First cruise ship in 17 months arrives in Venice

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”? 

READ ALSO: Is Italy really going to offer vaccines to tourists this summer?

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.

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OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

In a country as attached to the car as Italy, what would it take to get more people to use greener transport? Silvia Marchetti looks at what’s behind the country’s high levels of car ownership.

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

Many foreigners I speak to are shocked by the ‘car first’ mentality that rules in Italy, and by Italians’ degree of addiction to any wheeled vehicle. 

There’s practically one car around for each Italian. Between 2010-2020 the population dropped but there were three million more cars on the roads, despite soaring living costs and falling salaries. 

Italy’s rate of car ownership is the second-highest in Europe after tiny Luxembourg. All Italian regions have a lot of cars running but surprisingly, the number of passenger cars which is the highest at EU level can be found in the Alpine regions of Valle D’Aosta and the northern autonomous province of Trento, where particular regional statutes envisage special tax incentives helping locals to buy new cars.

Most Italians just don’t like walking. They aren’t active travelers who’d opt for a bike, and can’t go even 500 meters without a wheeled vehicle, be it a Jeep, motorbike, Vespa or motorino. 

But it’s not really their fault. People in Italy haven’t been educated on eco-friendly modes of transport, simply because infrastructure like bike lanes, pedestrian paths, high-speed trains, efficient trams, subways and buses are rather lacking. And there aren’t many walkable pavements in cities, let alone in old villages. So the car is Italians’ second home. 

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

There’s an historical reason for this, too. After the second world war, during the economic boom when Italy finally rose from the ashes of the defeat, owning a cinquecento or maggiolino was a status symbol. In the 1960s my father would squeeze eight friends into his cinquino and drive around all night, sharing the fuel cost. Then the car fad turned into a frenzy, and now it’s an obsession.

Iconic Italian car and motorbike models fuelled a post-war fad – which has become an obsession. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Whenever I need to go somewhere far from my house I wish I could do the entire trip by public transport and ditch my car, so as to avoid having parking problems too. I remember once when I was at university there was this huge party near the Colosseum, I drove around for an hour looking for a parking spot and eventually I gave up, went back home really frustrated. 

Car sharing also is something totally foreign to Italians. You just need to look around in the morning at rush hour to see that there’s just one person per car, which is totally unsustainable climate-wise.

READ ALSO: Rome ‘among worst cities in Europe’ for road safety, traffic and pollution

Even in areas like Milan, where public transport is more efficient than in the southern regions, people still stick to their car or motorino which just proves how it’s a matter of mentality rather than of transport provision. 

On the other hand, if I want to visit Tuscany or Umbria from my house in Rome’s northern countryside, there aren’t even any direct connections.

My Italian millennial friends refuse to take a bus or tram to the gelateria a few blocks away from their home – the car is the rule, and they don’t care if they risk a fine for double parking, or parking in front of a building entrance. Forget walking, it just isn’t ‘done’.

Italy will soon invest some €600 million in projects aimed at improving bike and pedestrian lanes under initiatives funded by the PNRR, but the mindset of drivers must also modernize for all this money to be really effective. 

OPINION: Why cycling in Rome isn’t as crazy as it sounds

Italy needs an information campaign to raise awareness of environmental and health issues, and this must start inside schools and continue in college. Families also should educate kids to healthier transport modes, and stop buying those ‘micro cars’ when they’re 13 which don’t require a driver’s license. 

I often ask myself what it would take to get Italians – but also other nationalities – out of their cars, or off their noisy motorino with illegal upgrades that make a hell of a noise. Rising oil prices haven’t done the miracle in making car ownership unaffordable. 

Hiking car prices would kill the industry, so the only way is to give tax breaks or incentives to families who keep just one car and manage to share it, or raise taxes if each family member has one. 

Perhaps in a very remote future, interconnected green transport from the doorstep to the destination might be the solution, but at the moment that’s science fiction.