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

‘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
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.

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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