OPINION: Italy must update its image if it wants a new kind of tourism

Italy aims to use EU funds to boost eco-conscious tourism and change the way it is perceived globally.
Italy aims to use EU funds to boost eco-conscious tourism and change the way it is perceived globally. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
Italian tourism marketing is stuck in the past and needs a revamp if the country is serious about leaving mass tourism behind for a greener, more sustainable model, says Silvia Marchetti.

Italy is a beautiful country, loved by tourists who returned this summer after the pandemic had pressed pause on global travel.

But the art, the churches, the monuments, the beaches and the food aren’t enough to keep the industry going in the long run if not supported by a strong marketing strategy – particularly in the post-pandemic world.

Italians have a saying: “Campare di rendita” – meaning ‘to live off the assets one already has without doing any extra work’. Like an aristocrat who survives on his family’s money without lifting a finger (until the day he realizes it’s all gone), Italy’s rich heritage requires a modern, efficient communication campaign to sustain it. 

Many foreigners I have spoken to complain they can’t find much help at local tourist offices, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas. Tourist information is often poor, outdated and consists of sketchy handouts and pamphlets only in Italian. What’s provided isn’t appealing: a list of fairs, religious parades, endless churches, museums and archaeological sites. 

READ ALSO: Why Italy urgently needs to hike entry prices to monuments and make people pay to visit churches

To lure curious visitors you need to feed them intriguing stories and blend the past with the present through legends, outdoor activities, interesting guided tours and experiences. Meeting locals who have a story to share or are doing something fantastic for the local community makes it all the more exciting: the Neapolitan pastry chef who makes the largest sfogliatella, a chili-pepper eating marathon in Calabria, the salami battle between neighboring towns, or Milan’s ‘mad hatter’ who designs tailored hats.

Will Italy see a return of pre-pandemic levels of mass tourism? File photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

I tend not to join guided tours because when I do I always end up wandering off. The last time was in Sicily, inside a stunning, spooky old fortress where it is said a princess was walled in alive in one of the turrets and the ghost of a knight in shining armor attempts to rescue her every fortnight. I just felt like strangling the guide. She made us stand for 1.5 hours under the scorching sun, without walking, just to listen to her narration of the historical facts and dates. It was boring.

All this reflects on travel journalism. The media can be a powerful tool in promoting destinations and yet such potential is not always grasped.

As a reporter when I need to source photos and turn to tourist boards they either have none or send black and white ones dating back to the 1960’s, or shots of a corner of an alley. Let alone high-res photos. Irritated, my question to them is always the same: ‘how can you promote the beauty and plus points of your territory if you have no alluring images to show people?’. Silence follows. 

Tourism marketing should be sexed up, but I think this is still not seen as a priority because tourists will come anyway to Italy to enjoy the views and wonders. And everyone knows it. 

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However, more dynamic and tailored campaigns focused on sustainability, green lifestyles and off-beat destinations could affect the type of incoming tourism by raising the quality and making it more niche. 

Italy’s post-Covid recovery plan has earmarked roughly 2.4 billion euros to revamp the sector, partly by boosting digital services through the creation of a new online platform.

Investments will also be made to support rural communities, upgrade accommodation, create new itineraries, hire new ‘professionals’ (perhaps in communication?) and promote under-the-radar, alternative destinations that offer a slow-pace experience. 

How all this will translate into concrete measures is still unclear.

The goal is to boost eco-conscious tourism and change the way Italy is perceived globally – not just as the cradle of art and history but also as an innovative, high-tech destination with modern, green infrastructure.

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In a post-Covid world, mass tourism will no longer be the norm while remote, idyllic spots are bound to lure travelers looking for a knowledge jolt and fewer crowds. 

The rebirth of rural Italy will be at the core of the tourism revamp – provided the funds are efficiently deployed. 

Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

But first, the way Italy thinks about tourism and the way it is promoted must change. The fact that Italians have adopted an English word – ‘marketing’ – just shows how such strategic skills have never quite been their forte. 

A couple of years ago the British Museum made global headlines by organizing a fabulous exhibition on the wonders of Pompeii in London, while back in Italy the archaeological site just kept falling to pieces. One could argue that it would have been preposterous to stage an interactive show amid the ruins given Pompeii is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site. But at the end of the day the UK basked in the reflected glory of an asset held in Italy. 

Italy’s problem is that it has been naturally gifted with too much beauty and art, and thinks that, just because it is Italy, it needs no advertising. 

Marketing campaigns are not seen as important, and when they are launched there’s often nothing new, sexy or surprising about them

I hate to be pessimistic but I think that without a ‘cultural revolution’ changing the messaging around tourism, and the approach towards territorial marketing, the recovery fund won’t be able to work miracles.


Member comments

  1. Robert, while I concur that a new way of marketing would benefit Italy down the road, we are now in Italy – enjoying the art, the wine, food, scenery immensely. We plan our own trips, & primarily stay at B&Bs. We visit some of the less popular places (Le Marche – Urbino & Ascoli Piceno), & Basilicata. The one thing we would like is better internet access in some places – outside of that, we just dig into the real Italy that doesn’t really need a lot of marketing…at least for us.

  2. Italy sells itself. The varying landscape from region to region, the people, the food, the numerous historic sites and the art. If people arrive in a small village and expect all the bells and whistles of a tourism office in a large city, that is asking a lot. The internet is at everyone’s figure tips who can afford to travel and is a great tool for research before leaving your own country. It’s pure laziness, when people complain there is no help when arriving in smaller places.

    Would say, it would benefit for some smaller places to keep their comune websites updated, with tourist sites, opening hours and map of the village.

    1. I agree that Italy mostly sells itself (to some tourists) yet there are so many missed opportunities for a broader, smart marketing campaign to highlight. A curious and thoughtful visitor can scour the internet to find what they think they want, but how many places and activities might they never find or consider?

      If Italy wants to revamp its tourist industry – to take pressure off the most visited places and to showcase the lesser-known – then I think they shouldn’t leave it up to tourists to figure it all out. A good marketing campaign could build interest and excitement by highlighting geographic areas, industries, sites, themed itineraries, transportation options, etc.

      Here are 2 examples from my own travels:
      For my second trip to Italy, quite by accident I found a Vespa tour of Rome’s street art. It turned out to be one of the most fun, interesting and memorable things I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t have known to look for it except for finding a reference to it in an article I stumbled upon.

      I’ve also visited Japan. On my first trip there I saw the popular tourist places. On my second trip, I chose a tour offered by a company that focuses on less-visited areas that are hurting for economic activity. It was a brilliant themed tour in an area I’d never visit on my own, and about which I knew nothing. I was so happy to be in uncrowded places where I didn’t see a single tour group.

      A good marketing campaign in Italy could direct a tourist’s attention to activities and places like these. It could open up more possibilities for tourists and for locals alike.

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