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TOURISM

OPINION: How tourism could help save Italy’s coastline – instead of destroying it

OPINION: How tourism could help save Italy’s coastline - instead of destroying it
The archipelago of Maddalena off Sardinia is a protected marine park, but you wouldn't always know it. Photo: Daniel SLIM/AFP

A friend recently sent me an aerial photo of Sardinia’s La Maddalena archipelago, taken from an helicopter in August, and I had to look four times before I realized what those hundreds of tiny white dots were. 

They were boats and yachts of all sizes crowding the sea, which had turned into a huge aquatic parking lot. I could hardly see the blue of the waves, nor the islands. 

Anyone who’s visited Sardinia’s coast is amazed by the beautiful scenery and beaches, but mass tourism is destroying it. 

La Maddalena is a protected marine park and yet, despite its unique habitat, I see very little being protected. 

READ ALSO: What is Italy doing about the shocking level of plastic pollution on its beaches?

Compared to 30 years ago when tourism in the area was still a niche sector, the coastal environment is dying as the sea is being vandalized and colonized by anyone with a boat.

The uninhabited island of Budelli, considered the gem of the archipelago with its pink coral beach, is regularly raided by tourists on day trips. Local authorities plan to build an environmental observatory there but so far all they’ve done is chase away its caretaker who had been looking after the isle for 33 years. 

Italy has 32 marine parks and natural reserves  with translucent waters, colorful fish and pristine beaches, which is one reason why tourists flock here – too many tourists.

Last time I visited Tuscany’s protected archipelago, the ferry crossed the so-called Cetacean Sanctuary and a family of dolphins jumped in the air saying ‘hello’. It was beautiful. 

Then, when I landed on the island of Capraia, I had to wait 40 minutes in line to disembark and find a hotel with an available room. Even though some nearby smaller Tuscan islands allow only a restricted number of visitors per year – like Pianosa and Montecristo – these attempts to preserve the environment are marred by the number of boats that anchor in the translucent waters or sail by. 

Access to, and traffic within, all marine parks should be limited to small sailing boats that turn off their engines once they’re inside, and must be regulated with the introduction of high entrance fees. 

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Mega yachts and yachts should be banned. Even scuba diving and small fishing boats should not be allowed in, as inexperienced divers and reckless fishermen can endanger fragile marine life and protected species such as giant groupers. 

Sustainable tourism means setting clear, strict rules. Tourists should still be able to visit – but on small-group guided tours solely organized by marine park authorities, and a limited number of visitors should be set for all islands within the parks.

Italy is a peninsula with so many unique coastal spots that require extra resources and care to safeguard. And it has a rich coastal architectural heritage, too, most of which is neglected and falling down.

Medieval pirate look-out towers dating back to the middle ages, empty Renaissance-era lighthouses, spooky seaside fortresses, and historical abandoned tuna factories have all crumbled, often into oblivion. 

South of Rome, at the foot of the Circeo promontory jutting out into the open sea, there’s a mesmerizing tower called Torre Paola which loses a few of its stones year by year.  Oblivious sunbathers lazing on the beach hardly see it. Despite various projects announced by local authorities to recover its lost grandeur it, nothing has been done. 

Same goes for the old lighthouse on the island of Ponza, off Rome’s coast. It’s set atop a tall rough cliff shaped like the back of a dinosaur, and it’s connected to the mainland by a narrow panoramic rock path suspended in midair luring crazy trekking amateurs hungry for an adrenaline rush. It’s a bit spooky. Each time I scuba dive down there I’m always scared a lightbulb or a piece of the roof will fall on my head.

READ ALSO: How Italy’s foreign residents are fighting the growing problem with beach pollution

The italian state is now leasing these lighthouses and stone towers  to private investors on contracts to run for 50 years, though restyle projects aimed at enhancing sustainable tourism, but so far there are few ‘green’ projects among them.

The goal is to bring the buildings back to life as innovative, environmentally-friendly structures (like libraries, museums, marine observatories, cultural think-tanks, conference halls, research centers) that involve visitors, academics and schoolchildren. 

However, these investments take years to bear fruit and, the truth is, many investors are reluctant to pay to renovate an historical dilapidated building which would still remain theproperty of the state. 

Also, many lighthouses are being turned into lavish five-star hotels, such as those in the Tremiti and Egadi archipelagos, accessible only to the most privileged guests. 

The cliff-hanging lighthouse of Capo Spartivento in southern Sardinia has  already been transformed into a deluxe resort, complete with panoramic pool. 

One way to lure more private investors and philanthropists is to boost tax incentives for renovations that preserve the coastal environment, and cut labor costs in hiring staff, masons, artisans and architects. 

When I spoke to businessmen who were initially interested in taking up these restyles, many told me the “scarce existing tax breaks aren’t appealing enough”.

Another solution would be to sell these properties outright to interested buyers, instead of leasing them, which would also be more convenient for the state – as long as the new owners implement green renovation models and keep the doors open, allowing tourists and outsiders to visit.

After all, these coastal buildings are historical sites with an ‘intangible value’ located in mesmerizing locations and should be sold at high prices in order to raise extra revenues to boost coastal preservation efforts.

Greener investments, in addition to a more sustainable and responsible form of tourism, could make a major contribution to preserving Italy’s wonderful coastal areas.

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MONEY

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

If you're visiting Italy from outside the EU you risk running up a huge phone bill in roaming charges - but there are ways to keep your internet access while avoiding being hit by extra charges.

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

Travelling without access to the internet is almost impossible these days. We use our phones for mapping applications, contacting the Airbnb, even scanning the QR code for the restaurant menu.

If you’re lucky enough to have a phone registered in an EU country then you don’t need to worry, thanks to the EU’s cap on charges for people travelling, but people visiting from non-EU countries – which of course now includes the UK – need to be careful with their phone use abroad.

First things first, if you are looking to avoid roaming charges, be sure to go into your settings and turn off “data roaming.” Do it right before your plane lands or your train arrives – you don’t want to risk the phone company in your home country starting the clock on ‘one day of roaming fees’ without knowing it.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

But these days travelling without internet access can be difficult and annoying, especially as a growing number of tourist attractions require booking in advance online, while restaurants often display their menus on a QR code.

So here are some techniques to keep the bills low.

Check your phone company’s roaming plan

Before leaving home, check to see what your phone plan offers for pre-paid roaming deals.

For Brits, if you have a phone plan with Three for example, you can ask about their “Go Roam” plan for add-on allowance. You can choose to pay monthly or as you go. Vodafone offers eight day and 15 day passes that are available for £1 a day.

For Americans, T-Mobile offers you to add an “international pass” which will charge you $5 per day. Verizon and AT&T’s roaming plans will charge you $10 per day. For AT&T, you are automatically opted into this as soon as your phone tries to access data abroad.

READ ALSO: Seven things to do in Italy in summer 2022

These all allow you to retain your normal phone number and plan.

Beware that these prices are only available if you sign up in advance, otherwise you will likely be facing a much bigger bill for using mobile data in Italy. 

Buy a pre-paid SIM card

However, if you are travelling for a longer period of time it might work out cheaper to turn off your phone data and buy a pre-paid SIM card in Italy.

In order to get a pre-paid SIM card, you will need your passport or proof of identity (drivers’ licences do not count).

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

Keep in mind that you will not be able to use your normal phone number with the new SIM card in, but will be able to access your internet enabled messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook and iMessage. Your phone will need to be ‘unlocked’ (ask your carrier about whether yours is) in order to put a new SIM card in.

Here are some of the plans you can choose from:

WindTre

WindTre, the result of a 2020 merger between the Italian company Wind and the UK network provider Three, currently offers a “Tourist Pass” SIM card for foreign nationals. For €24.99 (it’s sneakily marketed as €14.99, but read the small print and you’ll see you need to fork out an additional €10), you’ll have access to 20GB of data for up to 30 days.

The offer includes 100 minutes of calls within Italy plus an additional 100 minutes to 55 foreign countries listed on the WindTre website. Up to 13.7GB can be used for roaming within the EU. The card is automatically deactivated after 30 days, so there’s no need to worry about surprise charges after you return from your holiday. To get this SIM card, you can go into any WindTre store and request it.

A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.
A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Vodafone

Vodafone has had better deals in the past, but lately appears to have downgraded its plan for tourists, now called “Vodafone Holiday” (formerly “Dolce Vita”), to a paltry 2GB for €30. You get a total of 300 minutes of calls and 300 texts to Italian numbers or to your home country; EU roaming costs €3 per day.

Existing Vodafone customers can access the offer by paying €19 – the charge will be made to your Vodafone SIM within 72 hours of activating the deal. 

READ ALSO: MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

The Vodafone Holiday offer automatically renews every four weeks for €29 – in order to cancel you’ll need to call a toll-free number. The Vodafone website says that the €30 includes the first renewal, suggesting the payment will cover the first four weeks plus an additional four after that, but you’ll want to double check before buying. You’ll need to go to a store in person to get the card.

TIM

TIM is one of Italy’s longest-standing and most well-established network providers, having been founded in 1994 following a merger between several state-owned companies.

The “Tim Tourist” SIM card costs €20 for 15GB of data and 200 minutes of calls within Italy and to 58 foreign countries, and promises “no surprises” when it comes to charges.

You can use the full 15GB when roaming within the EU at no extra charge, and in the EU can use your minutes to call Italian numbers. The deal is non-renewable, so at the end of the 30 days you won’t be charged any additional fees.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

To access the offer, you can either buy it directly from a TIM store in Italy, or pre-order using an online form and pay with your bank card. Once you’ve done this, you’ll receive a PIN which you should be able to present at any TIM store on arrival in Italy (along with your ID) to collect your pre-paid card. The card won’t be activated until you pick it up.

Iliad

Iliad is the newest and one of the most competitive of the four major phone companies operating in Italy, and currently has an offer of 120GBP of €9.99 a month. For this reason, some travel blogs recommend Iliad as the best choice for foreigners – but unfortunately all of their plans appear to require an Italian tax ID, which rules it out as an option for tourists.

Contract

Though buying a pre-paid SIM card is a very useful option for visitors spending a decent amount of time in Italy, as mentioned above, there’s a significant different difference between buying a one-time pre-paid SIM versus a monthly plan that auto-renews.

Make sure you know which one you’re signing up for, and that if you choose a plan that will continue charging you after your vacation has ended, you remember to cancel it.

UK contracts

If you have a UK-registered mobile phone, check your plan carefully before travelling. Before Brexit, Brits benefited from the EU cap on roaming charges, but this no longer applies.

Some phone companies have announced the return of roaming charges, while others have not, or only apply roaming charges only on certain contracts.

In short, check before you set off and don’t assume that because you have never been charged extra before, you won’t be this time.

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