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TOURISM

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

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 aims to use EU funds to boost eco-conscious tourism and change the way it is perceived globally.
Mask rules have been eased in Italy except for on public transport - though they remain recommended in crowded places. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

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 Tourist information is often poor, outdated and consists of sketchy handouts and pamphlets only in Italian.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.

READ ALSO:

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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. It’s tempting to encourage Italy to use marketing for improving its tourist services etc but frankly, the beauty of Italy resides in it’s amateurism and reluctance to comply with slick anglo-saxon marketing and advertising campaigns! It’s so much more satisfying to discover places and experiences that haven’t been trampled to dust by millions of other punters.

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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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