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. 

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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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