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Inside Italy: The rise of mass tourism and how do Italians feel about the EU?

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Inside Italy: The rise of mass tourism and how do Italians feel about the EU?
Visitors at the Italia in Miniatura (Italy in Miniature) theme park in Rimini. Is tourism threatening to overwhelm Italy's most popular sites? (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

In this week's Inside Italy newsletter, we look at whether Italy is destined to see anti-tourism protests like those in Spain, and ask what the European Union has ever done for Italians.

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Boom or bust

After Italy received a record number of tourists in 2023, even more people are expected to visit this year as the post-Covid tourism boom continues: 216 million, in fact.

This is obviously great news for Italy’s tourism businesses after several years of struggling to survive amid pandemic-induced closures. 

But there are growing concerns about what the pressures of tourist crowds mean for local residents in popular areas, as their needs come ever more sharply into conflict with those of the industry.

By now, most of us have heard about, or directly experienced, the issues caused by uncontrolled mass tourism in European cities: soaring rents and housing shortages, gentrification, crowds, noise, litter. It’s nothing new.

Italians only need to look across to Spain, which gets even more visitors, to see the kind of social problems and unrest that can be caused by mass tourism. These are already being seen in some of Italy’s major cities and tourism destinations too - Venice and Florence are the most obvious examples - even if Italians aren’t yet at the point of scrawling “tourists go home!” on the walls of holiday lets.

Are the same issues and anti-tourism protests now inevitable in Italy as tourism continues to grow at pace?

MAP: The parts of Italy getting the most tourism in 2024

While there have been a lot of headlines recently about experimental crowd control measures in Venice and planned tourist rental limits in Florence, for example, there’s a simple reason these plans are unpopular with local residents - they’re not expected to be effective.

Such tourism restrictions in Italy are left up to local authorities, who tend to use a very light touch. Now, campaigners are increasingly pushing for national regulation to prevent the hollowing out of city centres.

Visitor numbers are very unevenly distributed across Italian cities and regions. Study after study has recommended that authorities do more to encourage tourists to travel beyond the hotspots, spreading the crowds (and revenue) out to lesser-visited areas that would welcome them.

But much-discussed ‘sustainable tourism’ initiatives such as alberghi diffusi (‘scattered hotels’) remain unknown to the vast majority of tourists. Meanwhile, visitor numbers in Rome and other cities continue to grow every year.

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What has the EU ever done for us?

Italians will go to the polls this weekend to vote in the European Parliament elections. Well, some of them will – turnout is expected to be around 50 percent, a lot lower than at Italian domestic elections (also at a record low last time around.)

Of those who are planning to vote, most are telling pollsters that they intend to vote along the same lines as they do in general elections. Giorgia Meloni’s personal popularity (and the fact she’s controversially standing as an EU election candidate) means her party is expected to do well, regardless of its stance on issues at European level.

It’s a reminder that, while the EU often feels remote, it has a big impact on everyday life. Every time you go on holiday, apply for compensation for a delayed flight, plug your phone in to charge, close a cookie window in your internet browser, or even open your wallet you can thank (or curse) the EU for their policies.

Non-EU foreigners who gain Italian citizenship get not only the right to live and work in Italy, but membership of a 27-country club with the right to move freely from Sweden to Spain, Portugal to Poland.

For Italy, membership of the European Union has some very tangible economic benefits. You will have seen them if you’ve travelled through any of the Italian airports or train stations built or rebuilt using European funding, or at archaeological sites and historic monuments, such as Pompeii, preserved using millions of euros from the European Regional Development Fund. 

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Now, the €191.5 billion in EU post-Covid recovery funds is widely seen as a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Italy to modernise its outdated infrastructure and boost its economic prospects (even if it's not clear how the Italian government is spending it.)

It may be surprising then to learn that Italy has its own ‘Italexit’ campaign - and that it's not entirely unpopular.

The Italexit party rears its head at every EU election: a small but vocal group agitating for Italy to seize its freedom from Brussels and, presumably, follow the UK into those promised sunlit uplands.

Matteo Salvini’s populist League has also focused its EU election campaign around the slogan meno Europa - ‘less Europe’ - but, nowadays, they stop short of suggesting Italy should actually leave.

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The most recent available polls from 2023 show some 20 percent of Italian voters say they would support Italy leaving the European Union, which is one of the highest rates in the bloc, though support for the idea had dropped by more than 9 percent since 2016-17.

At least for now, any overt discussion of Italy giving up membership of the European Union or the Eurozone remains on the political fringes.

Inside Italy is our weekly look at some of the news and talking points in Italy that you might not have heard about. It’s published each Saturday and members can receive it directly to their inbox, by going to their newsletter preferences or adding their email to the sign-up box in this article.

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