Opinion and Analysis For Members

Why Italy needs a national plan for sustainable tourism - before it’s too late

Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti - [email protected]
Why Italy needs a national plan for sustainable tourism - before it’s too late
UNESCO recently recommended Venice's inclusion in the endangered world heritage list, in part due to overtourism. Photo by Andrea PATTARO / AFP

Italy needs a nationwide plan to keep its tourist numbers sustainable: piecemeal initiatives by local authorities simply won't cut it, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.


I’m quite baffled by Venice's long-delayed plans to restrict tourism numbers, especially after UNESCO’s recent 'endangered' recommendation for sustainability. 

I have read in local media that apparently it’s Venetians themselves who are against the cap, because of fears it might be a way for authorities to spy on them; the concept of ‘privacy’ in Italy is sacrosanct. So it’s become a very unpopular, thorny measure no mayor wants to endorse any more for obvious political reasons.

However, tourism numbers and sustainability in Italy generally don’t go together well.

READ ALSO: 'Please don't come': Summer tourists overwhelm 'endangered' Venice

The government has recently pointed to its strategic plan for tourism, which is currently sitting in parliament waiting to be discussed, analysed, honed, changed, voted on a zillion times over and then perhaps, one day, approved.

In my view, the plan is thin air: the usual political blah-blah which parties love to indulge in. It vaguely mentions the need to boost alternative, less crowded destinations, develop "green" resorts and tourist infrastructure, and improve the coordination between central and local bodies.

There’s the rub. At the moment there is no cooperation between regions, provinces and town halls on one hand, and the government or tourism ministry on the other. As long as this is lacking, tourism sustainability remains a utopia.

So far, most measures adopted to cap tourist numbers in endangered or overcrowded spots have been at a very local level. It’s all at the discretion of mayors, regional governors or province chiefs to place restrictions on the number of daily sunbathers or mountain hikers in areas considered at risk.

Sardinia's Spiaggia della Pelosa

A view of Sardinia's popular Spiaggia della Pelosa beach, where towels are banned in a bid to curb shore erosion. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

In Sardinia, the mayors of several summer resorts - such as Stintino, Baunei, and Villa Simius - have passed decrees capping the daily number of beachgoers, and introduced very high fines for wild parking on protected dunes and stealing precious sand. 


On Stintino’s popular La Pelosa beach, known for its golden-pinkish sand full of coral dust, sunbathers are forbidden to use towels lest sand gets caught in the fabric, leading to shore erosion.

In the Cinque Terre there’s another never-ending story, like Venice’s long-delayed restrictions. 

READ ALSO: Will Rome restrict access to Trevi Fountain to stop unruly tourists?

Each summer, when the picturesque cliffhanging villages are invaded by hordes of tourists, mayors complain but then do nothing to cap numbers because the more tourists, the higher the revenues for the tourism sector. 

Occasionally, it’s the Cinque Terre park authorities who supervise hiking routes that shut the area down for safety and the preservation of certain popular routes, like the Via dell’Amore. But it’s always temporary.

In Alto Adige, the fate of pristine Lake Braies, stuck amid breathtaking Dolomite peaks, is in a similar limbo. Selfie-addicts walk on the frozen ice and many fall into the freezing water, but no restrictions have been put in place by local authorities.


In the past few years, the Amalfi Coast has capped the number of tourist cars allowed in, and Positano’s mayor banned people from taking selfies and sitting on fragile brick walls over fears the village could crumble into the sea - which might sound ridiculous but is not.

A section of Italy's Amalfi coast

Several villages on Italy's popular Amalfi coast (pictured) have over the years made attempts to regulate tourist numbers during the summer months. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

I remember when I first visited the remote village of Civita di Bagnoreggio in the Lazio region, dubbed the ‘dying city’ because millennia of soil erosion have left it hanging mid-air like an island, surrounded by a deep gorge which bits of the cliffs keep falling into every year. There’s one single, narrow metal bridge connecting it to the mainland, and the number of tourists who flock there on weekends just to take photos is frightening. There are no limits on numbers.

READ ALSO: The tourism restrictions Italy is planning this summer

The fate of Italy’s loveliest destinations cannot depend solely on local initiatives. I strongly believe that Italy needs a nationwide law, before it’s too late, that places restrictions approved by parliament on all areas considered to have a medium-to-high environmental risk due to overtourism.

The plan pending in parliament doesn’t mention this.

Caps should apply to all beaches where the fragile habitat is endangered, where there’s a risk of sand erosion or bits of cliffs falling and potentially harming sunbathers. 

Restrictions should be placed for all zones - mountains, lakes, rivers and villages - where tourism sustainability is lacking or very weak.


The risk assessment could be carried out by a special committee of experts (not politicians) set up by the government for small and unknown locations, or based on the evaluation of international bodies like UNESCO when it entails protecting larger, touristy cities such as Venice.

As the popular saying goes: "Rome wasn’t built in a day". This applies to everywhere in beautiful Italy, but the shocking reality is that, equally, any place could crumble in a day if protective measures are not soon put in place.


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