OPINION: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

The pandemic is shaping the future of tourism in Italy with a 'rural revolution' among travellers keen to escape the crowds, says Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Mass tourism is back in Italy - but the way we travel is changing
Crowds returned to Venice this Easter, but will more people look beyond the hotspots in future? Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

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.

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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.

MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

“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. 

Rural stays and wine tours in the Italian countryside are top of many travellers’ wishlists this year. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

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.

READ ALSO: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

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.

Member comments

  1. “though visitors for now are mainly Italians or Europeans”… was the quote from this article. Maybe up to Easter weekend this was true. But take it from me, I live in Venice (centro storico) where in my experience right now is every 5 out of 10 people are either American or British. Surprisingly, more American then British.
    Today I just left Florence after 5 days in the city. The city is packed with people. Easily 80% of the people (yes! 80% of the people are American). We left for Siena today. Missed our first train as it took over an hour to get a taxi to the train station. The city is more crowded than I ever remember!! In fact too many people. I spoke to someone yesterday who lives in Florence and said Easter was just too crowded and it took away from the holiday.
    Sadly it seems no one learned anything during Covid.
    I am going to run my errands early during this summer in Venice and hide the rest of the day.

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EXPLAINED: How will the tourist-control system work in Venice?

Venice is introducing a new system to discourage day-trippers in hopes of curbing problems with overtourism in the popular hotspot. Here is what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: How will the tourist-control system work in Venice?

After years of discussing a possible “tourist tax”, the city of Venice has confirmed it will make day-trippers pay from €3 to €10 for access to the city centre starting on January 16th.

Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said the goal of the new tourism fee is to discourage day tourism at certain times of the year and encourage overnight tourism. Day-trippers will have to pay a fee, but those who stay overnight continue only to have to pay the city tax of €2 to €5, according to a government press release.

The Commission and the City Council will now examine the regulatory text for the final green light scheduled for the summer.

“We are the first in the world to introduce this system, and we are aware that not everything will work well from the beginning, but we will be ready to improve in the course of work. We want to guarantee the tourist the best quality of the visit and make sure that the city is able to give visitors all the services they need”, said Tourism Secretary Simone Venturini.

READ ALSO: After flooding and coronavirus, is it time Venice stopped relying on tourism?

How much will I have to pay?

The contributo di acesso, or access contribution, will cost from €3 to €10, depending on factors such as tourism numbers for the day and season.

The city will determine a certain threshold of tourists, after which people will be required to pay higher sums. Travellers are encouraged to book in advance to avoid price increases.

Does the payment have to be made in advance?

The government said that nobody would be denied entry to Venice, meaning a pre-registration is not necessary. However, the mayor said that those who book their visit in advance would be “rewarded”. The reward will likely discount the fee.

How will the system work? Where do I pay?

According to the City of Venice, the payment is an alternative to the city tax. It will be required from every person that goes to the old city centre of Venice, as well as other major tourist destinations and islands in the region.

READ ALSO: 16 surprising facts about Venice to mark 16 centuries of the lagoon city

A single payment guarantees access to the old town and the smaller islands.

Tourists will be able to pay through an online and “multilingual” platform where they will receive a QR code to present in case of controls. Tickets should also be available to buy in connection with public transport – so if you are arriving by train, it will be possible to buy the train ticket and the entry pass together.

Who is excluded or exempt from the payment?

There are several exceptions to the payment, according to the website. Among them are residents from the Comune di Venezia, those who work or study there, and those who own homes in the city.

Additionally, exceptions include those born in the Comune di Venezia, children under six years of age, people with disabilities and their accompanying person, public workers, volunteers, people visiting family members, prisoners, or attending funerals, and many others.

Residents of the Veneto region “up to the thresholds that will be set by a specific Council resolution” are also exempt.

Those who stay overnight and, therefore, already pay the city tax through their hotel or short-term rental booking are also exempt from the fee.

The city of Murano, in the metropolitan region of Venice (Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash)

What about people arriving on cruises?

Venice is a very popular stop for cruise ships and people visiting the city on a cruise tour will also have to pay the fee as they disembark in the old town. However, the City of Venice said they might determine a lump-sum measure in agreement with the relevant carriers.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why more of Italy’s top destinations must limit tourist numbers

Which smaller islands are included?

Only one ticket and payment is required for those travelling to multiple islands, including Venice. The islands that are part of the group are:

  • Lido di Venezia
  • Pellestrina
  • Murano
  • Burano
  • Torcello
  • Sant’Erasmo
  • Mazzorbo
  • Mazzorbetto
  • Vignole
  • S. Andrea
  • La certosa
  • S. Servolo
  • S. Clemente
  • Poveglia

What if I simply don’t pay?

If you fail to produce proof of payment or that you are exempt from the fee, the sanction is from €50 to €300. The fine is the same in the case of people making false statements trying to obtain exemptions or reductions.

Additionally, visitors who don’t pay in advance will have to pay the full €10 fee.

For more info click here.