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OPINION & ANALYSIS

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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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: If you want quality of life, choose Italy’s sunny south over the efficient north

Northern cities may consistently top the 'quality of life' rankings, but the true pleasures of life in Italy can’t always be measured, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: If you want quality of life, choose Italy’s sunny south over the efficient north

Italy has a persistent dichotomy that strikes anyone who has travelled it extensively or lived here for a while.

There’s a huge gap between the quality of life as in efficient services, roads, good internet, and the ‘pleasures of life’, which come down to more immaterial and intangible aspects such as the hospitality and friendliness of locals, the beauty of surroundings, and overall cost of living.

READ ALSO: The Italian towns with the best (and worst) quality of life

All quality of life surveys usually rank more efficient, cleaner northern cities at the top, with sunny but less functional southern ones at the bottom – though on the other hand these have stunning beaches and cheaper services.

While it’s obviously not always so simple, there are differences which are clear to see.

To take two examples: in northern Bolzano you have punctuality, shiny roads, higher income levels, but also a bit of the stereotypical Teutonic cold, distant attitude. In Syracuse, Sicily, local food is more varied and most people are warm, open to strangers, but trains take ages to connect places, and the roads aren’t great either.

This makes it hard to say which towns are ‘best’ to live in because you just can’t have it all. It depends on what your expectations and lifestyle already are, or if you long for radical change.

READ ALSO: Why north-south stereotypes aren’t offensive to most Italians

I could never live in Turin, Milan or Venice – because of the weather, the crowds and the prices.

Were I to choose, I’ve always dreamt of relocating to a southern location to telework, either in Sicily (picturesque Palermo) or Puglia (gorgeous, Baroque Lecce). Even a tiny Sicilian island fascinates me, like Salina or Filicudi, but I might find too much isolation there as winters can get really solitary when the ferry boats don’t travel. 

I’ve always envied Sicilians who get to enjoy beach days and warm temperatures eight months a year, have a succulent cuisine and can eat the real ricotta-filled cannoli whenever they feel like it. 

Last time I visited Trapani and stayed there for a while the next door neighbor gave me a tray of pastries on the day of my departure. People welcome you in their homes and say ‘buongiorno’ when you meet them in the streets. 

Human warmth is almost tangible in the south whereas in the north, perhaps because there are bigger cities, you need to be in small towns or villages to find welcoming residents eager to help you or make you feel at home. 

READ ALSO: From coffee to haircuts: How the cost of living varies around Italy

The fact that the value of family is so important in the south, much more than in the north, explains why southerners are more open to outsiders and foreigners than in the north. 

Cities like Naples, Lecce and Palermo also have a more laid-back vibe, people are less frenetic than in Milan and seem to enjoy life more. This attitude affects the way visitors feel, too. 

People don’t just want clean roads, trains that run on time, efficient hospitals. A smile from a passer-by, a gift, or just a quick chat after a morning espresso can really make your day. Cities reflect the nature of their inhabitants. 

Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP

I remember once I was touring Sicily heading to Noto, we stopped for some water at a bar in the middle of the countryside and my friend tripped, falling down. In less than a second a bunch of elders who had seen the accident rushed to our side and helped my friend back on her feet, making sure I was okay too. 

Taxi rides can be quite enlightening. When you grab a taxi in Milan, Genoa or Trieste, don’t expect the driver to start talking to you unless it’s for specific information. But when I visited Naples and called a cabbie, he turned into my personal Virgil, sharing city secrets and taking me to see offbeat places along the coast. He sang and smiled, which he wasn’t required to do. It was a memorable ride. 

READ ALSO: Why are Italy’s disappearing dialects so important?

However, it’s hard to draw a line. I’m not saying that all northern cities have a poor ‘pleasure of life’ level and all southern ones rank low for life quality, but this is a general trend. 

And I believe Italy’s eternal north-south dilemma is here to stay. 

The European Union’s pandemic funds, partly aimed at reducing these regional gaps, might improve services in the south but they surely can’t turn a gloomy, stressed-out Milanese into a loud, cheerful Neapolitan.

The economic gap (which affects quality of life) between northern and southern cities will always persist. That’s what makes Italy such a rich, multifarious country.

Do you agree with the opinions expressed in this article? How did you choose between the north and south of Italy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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