The pandemic is changing travel in Italy, though its full effects will take time to set in.
The Easter holidays ‘testing ground’ has proven that mass tourism has returned to Italy’s most popular cities like Venice, Florence, and Rome, though visitors for now are mainly Italians or Europeans.
Cities and regions have drawn up post-Covid plans for safer and more sustainable holidays, including by opening more sites to reduce crowds, limiting the number of tourists in specific historical districts, and offering more eco-friendly or unusual experiences, for example through the nationwide Scopri l’Italia che non sapevi (‘Discover the Italy you didn’t know’) project.
In order for these plans to be fully implemented we’ll likely need to wait until next year. However, there’s already a new outlook.
Cities are now focussing on offering more food-related experiences to travelers, spa stays, and day trips to escape the crowds, which guarantees social distancing and reassures people.
But I think the change in pace will come from travelers themselves. I believe it’s individual demand that is most rapidly and profoundly shaping the nature of tourism right now.
There’s a growing interest in sustainable ‘off the beaten path’ travel among visitors. Think visits to tiny unknown villages and parks, or quirky, rural tours and unique, tailored experiences along shepherd trails in Abruzzo, old mule routes and across bandits lands like in Sardinia.
Talking to Italian tourism experts, I realized that the post-Covid era has accelerated, and consolidated, mutations already underway in the sector prior to the pandemic.
Not only do people want to see sites and artistic monuments, they long for activities and tours with a knowledge jolt. They want active and tailored holidays with personalized itineraries.
For instance, I recently discovered a new niche biking route that crosses rural Sicily from coast to coast luring cycling amateurs amid grazing sheep, sleepy villages, green rolling hills and wheat fields. Cyclists get to sleep in farms and B&Bs located in bucolic semi-abandoned hamlets.
In Florence, tourism experts say travellers now want alternative ways to explore and experience the city away from the crowds, such as by sailing in fishing boats or paddle-boarding along the Arno at night, or taking sunset boat trips with live music and evening drinks.
There’s a demand for high-adrenaline activities like climbing the Etna volcano in Sicily; stays in unusual ‘floating boat hotels’ around the Gargano promontory of Puglia or along Piedmont’s waterways; underground trips to explore caves, prisons where the wicked Holy Inquisition tortured ‘heretics’, and dark ancient Roman aqueducts.
Roberto Nini, head of Narni’s underground tours, says he has full bookings for this summer from abroad.
“Our Inquisition tours have always been popular, but there’s something about crawling into the bowels of the earth that’s reassuring during Covid and disquieting at the same time, and tourists love this”, he says.
A rural tourism-led revival is underway.
“The pandemic has boosted the appeal of off beat old villages that guarantee social distancing”, says Fiorello Primi, head of the Borghi Più Belli d’Italia’ club promoting Italy’s most beautiful villages.
“We’ve seen a boom in foreign tourism last year, and this trend is bound to increase this summer. The pandemic has revived many forgotten spots, where traditions survive, fresh air and social distancing is guaranteed”, he says.
Tourists also long for simple, rural stays with a ‘bucolic-farmer vibe’ where they can do unusual things, like go on porcini mushroom hunts or learn to make sheep cheese, or even discover the secrets of sheep shearing. Last week I visited the stunning remote village of Castel di Tora near Rome, overlooking a pristine lake. Excited locals told me all houses were being spruced up for foreign holiday makers – the shutters restored and the balconies fixed with such care and passion it was quite touching to see.
In the northern Franciacorta wine region, demand for vineyard trekking and yoga among the vines has increased, according to winemaker Fabio Lantieri de Paratico, a founding member of the Franciacorta consortium.
“It’s mystical, solitary, healthy and allows to tap into the essence of nature. Tourists are always curious to learn why our territory makes such great wine”, says Lantieri.
This is what I call ‘savvy experiential tourism’, and this will be the tourism of the future, not just in Italy but particularly in Italy which has so much to offer. Tourists are looking beyond touristy things and craving more in-depth stays.
An ‘alternative’ tourism revival is also being led by a new generation of farmers, cattle breeders and shepherds who instead of fleeing their land in search of work elsewhere are recovering lost ancient lentils plantations on southern islands, old salt windmills, and healthy Saracen crops imported by pirates in the middle ages in Sicily.
They take tourists on tours and rent studios, eager to share the ‘archaic’ knowhow of their ancestors.
Old shepherds’ trails, so-called ‘tratturi’ used for transhumance in the past, are also being recovered for tourism. You get to sleep in tents and move around on horse or donkey at a laid-back pace, and totally unplugged.
I was invited once to take part in a tratturo adventure, and you really need to prepare to live ‘rudimentally’ for days. It gives a fresh glimpse of Italy’s old world; a unique experience which is also what the ‘new normal’ in Italian tourism will be all about.