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.

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“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: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

In a country as attached to the car as Italy, what would it take to get more people to use greener transport? Silvia Marchetti looks at what’s behind the country’s high levels of car ownership.

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

Many foreigners I speak to are shocked by the ‘car first’ mentality that rules in Italy, and by Italians’ degree of addiction to any wheeled vehicle. 

There’s practically one car around for each Italian. Between 2010-2020 the population dropped but there were three million more cars on the roads, despite soaring living costs and falling salaries. 

Italy’s rate of car ownership is the second-highest in Europe after tiny Luxembourg. All Italian regions have a lot of cars running but surprisingly, the number of passenger cars which is the highest at EU level can be found in the Alpine regions of Valle D’Aosta and the northern autonomous province of Trento, where particular regional statutes envisage special tax incentives helping locals to buy new cars.

Most Italians just don’t like walking. They aren’t active travelers who’d opt for a bike, and can’t go even 500 meters without a wheeled vehicle, be it a Jeep, motorbike, Vespa or motorino. 

But it’s not really their fault. People in Italy haven’t been educated on eco-friendly modes of transport, simply because infrastructure like bike lanes, pedestrian paths, high-speed trains, efficient trams, subways and buses are rather lacking. And there aren’t many walkable pavements in cities, let alone in old villages. So the car is Italians’ second home. 

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

There’s an historical reason for this, too. After the second world war, during the economic boom when Italy finally rose from the ashes of the defeat, owning a cinquecento or maggiolino was a status symbol. In the 1960s my father would squeeze eight friends into his cinquino and drive around all night, sharing the fuel cost. Then the car fad turned into a frenzy, and now it’s an obsession.

Iconic Italian car and motorbike models fuelled a post-war fad – which has become an obsession. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Whenever I need to go somewhere far from my house I wish I could do the entire trip by public transport and ditch my car, so as to avoid having parking problems too. I remember once when I was at university there was this huge party near the Colosseum, I drove around for an hour looking for a parking spot and eventually I gave up, went back home really frustrated. 

Car sharing also is something totally foreign to Italians. You just need to look around in the morning at rush hour to see that there’s just one person per car, which is totally unsustainable climate-wise.

READ ALSO: Rome ‘among worst cities in Europe’ for road safety, traffic and pollution

Even in areas like Milan, where public transport is more efficient than in the southern regions, people still stick to their car or motorino which just proves how it’s a matter of mentality rather than of transport provision. 

On the other hand, if I want to visit Tuscany or Umbria from my house in Rome’s northern countryside, there aren’t even any direct connections.

My Italian millennial friends refuse to take a bus or tram to the gelateria a few blocks away from their home – the car is the rule, and they don’t care if they risk a fine for double parking, or parking in front of a building entrance. Forget walking, it just isn’t ‘done’.

Italy will soon invest some €600 million in projects aimed at improving bike and pedestrian lanes under initiatives funded by the PNRR, but the mindset of drivers must also modernize for all this money to be really effective. 

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Italy needs an information campaign to raise awareness of environmental and health issues, and this must start inside schools and continue in college. Families also should educate kids to healthier transport modes, and stop buying those ‘micro cars’ when they’re 13 which don’t require a driver’s license. 

I often ask myself what it would take to get Italians – but also other nationalities – out of their cars, or off their noisy motorino with illegal upgrades that make a hell of a noise. Rising oil prices haven’t done the miracle in making car ownership unaffordable. 

Hiking car prices would kill the industry, so the only way is to give tax breaks or incentives to families who keep just one car and manage to share it, or raise taxes if each family member has one. 

Perhaps in a very remote future, interconnected green transport from the doorstep to the destination might be the solution, but at the moment that’s science fiction.