Once, all of Italy welcomed the Grand Tour Travellers and the respective “wealth” they brought with them, benefitting from the next round of visitors and the next, all of whom had responded to increasing literature in praise of the riches witnessed and also, it must be said, in response to the apparent joyous existence and pleasures found in simply living a life that is distinctively Italian. Today, according to the current rash of discussion, the continuing and exponentially increasing stream of foreign visitors seems less of a welcome and more of a burden. There is a shadow falling over many popular destinations as they struggle to keep up with the demands (and demanding nature) of mass tourism. What once counted as an economic boon now sees local populations and traditional local stores, services and artisan crafts dwindle to an alarming rate, being replaced by cheap trinkets, tourist memorabilia and franchised eateries.
In these places, targeted by the large travel industry giants, it is becoming increasingly difficult for genuine “travellers” to find the original charm and unique quality that first inspired that earliest of travel writing, where it is possible still to connect with the locals, eat the local cuisine in a trattoria run by generations of the same family, appreciate how the local populace goes about the business of living and surviving, where shops and services exist to serve their needs and where Italian (or the local dialectic version of it) is by far, the predominate language heard in the streets. This is, after all, what we travellers seek, that special connection to people, to their long-held traditions and to a different way of life. And, above all, to do it with grace and great respect for the traditions and local populace; it is not a “theme-park” history frozen in time but rather that simple pleasure of getting to know and understand someone else’s place in the world and all that goes with it.
So, how is that possible? Once those huge jets began spewing out thousands at each landing and those great, mammoth blocks of cruise ships began disgorging even greater numbers on the quaysides, there was an obvious pivotal moment that would eventually be reached, though few could really see the long-term ramifications and inevitability of it all. Even those smaller places, those wonderful land-locked treasures of Medieval Europe, those hillside cities and towns, like our own Orvieto, cannot see the dangers of catering to the onslaught. That is because, in these small places, it is a pale shadow that creeps insidiously up the streets, first welcoming the purchase of households with foreign cash, opening up more and more apartments for short-term stays and eventually pricing the local residents out of the market, closing down the small, local producers and introducing goods from further afield in the hope of attracting more cash. There is, of course, no problem in having these extra services, in the name of modernism, ease of living and greater diversity, but when it comes at the expense of local producers (because they may not be as flashy and as market driven as the newcomers) then it is a negative influence.
Some cities, Volterra to name one, applaud and celebrate their unique gift of artisan producers, with walking maps and literature to celebrate them all, encouraging tourists to purchase THEIR goods and save Florence leather for Florence, for example. Others embrace foreign cash and foreign influence too readily and sell the soul of even the most revered treasures, allowing flashy coloured lights and festivals that have nothing to do with celebrating the unique heritage that already exists, or by charging a gateway entry point without thinking to impose an upper limit on visitors to limit the damage that sheer numbers make. While the short term benefits of, for example, the foot bridge access charge to Civita di Bagnoregio (the “dying” city) where “some” revenue goes back to the city itself but the numbers allowed across at any one time are not limited, the very thing that draws visitors in first of all, will be surely lost. What has not yet been destroyed by earthquakes and the like will inevitably be lost to mass tourism as they predict a doubling of numbers in under a year.
Behaviour can be more or less responsible and what is responsible in a particular place depends upon environment and culture. Right now Italy is reeling under the weight of mass tourism with reports weekly (sometimes daily in the heat of summer) where some tourist activities are scandalising the locals: taking a dip in the many fountains of Rome, swimming in the Grand Canal in Venice and using public space as an open urinal, drinking alcohol and eating snacks in and around public monumental sites and squares in Milan and Florence, and much more general antisocial behaviour. Many of the measures taken are greeted with approval, even by tourist themselves. The laws now governing the use (or ban of) selfie-sticks, fast food, and other irritants are just part of the nation’s struggles with the increasing flood of tourists.
Where are the checks and balances here? Unquestionably it comes down to how the local governments manage their resources and what measures are put in place to protect the local environment and local interests, but there is a huge weight of responsibility resting on the shoulders of those within the travel industry too. Luigi Barzini’s The Italians, published in 1964, should be mandatory reading for anyone who thinks they understand Italy and the Italians and what draws the ”monsoon” of tourists to the peninsula each year. He says again (in an article written for the New York Times. Nov 15 1981) there is no point in giving advice to tourists as they “bring their own Italy with them; they stubbornly see, taste, experience and remember uniquely the country of their wishes.” It is too easy for travel agents to pick a glossy picture book off the shelf and sell that to a tourist who is already filled with a preconceived idea of which Italy will serve them best, especially for those first time tourists who want to see it all. The greater responsible, and admittedly more time consuming option, is to seek out those service providers with direct access to real people and locations while still fulfilling the client’s need to see all those famous sites. That plotting and planning is part of the adventure. Given all the well publicised stresses and strains on the peninsula today there is a much greater responsibility to be taken up by agents in encouraging clients to travel out of the high season and to understand the best times to approach those highly visible monuments, and to travel in smaller groups, with less impact on local services, and to stay longer in one location as a base to visit more of a local area and to get to appreciate the real gems of any travel, the people themselves.
Sadly, many in the travel industry these days simply do not have sufficient personal experience themselves that qualifies them to advise their clients and, understandably, these agents must advise on a whole world of travel and are often pushed to the limits by economic struggles, pushy large scale wholesalers plus the increasing competition from people who can so easily get online and self-book – (that is another whole “can of worms” for another time). But still, the travel industry does need to keep up with what is now regarded as an industry in crisis that does need to adopt the mantle of responsibility in advising their clients of how, where and when they travel.
The idea of “Responsible Tourism” comes from the 2002 Cape Town Conference as part of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, attended by delegates from 20 countries. Responsible Tourism is about “making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit.” It requires that operators, hoteliers, governments, local people and tourists take action to make tourism more sustainable. The Cape Town Declaration recognises that Responsible Tourism takes a variety of forms, it is characterised by travel and tourism which, among many other objectives should provide “more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues,” to be culturally sensitive and to engender respect between tourists and hosts.
Of course, there are many travellers who still come to Italy for all the right reasons, as Barzini says,
. . . they know their way about . . . They all avoid the heat and the dust, seldom visit the obvious places but, when they have to (the obvious places are often the most desirable), they go at convenient hours, when the crowd is away and when the air is cool . . .Some are in love with nature, others with art, culture, archaeology or music. Some like meeting people and making friends . . .There are those who make lengthy detours, to see some little known masterpiece, and those who like food and wine and know the trattorie which only a few natives and no foreigners have yet discovered (The Italians, p19).
These are the travellers that we encourage at DI, the ones (like you still reading here) who still feel that sense of adventure, still believe there are things to discover without necessarily having it all presented to you as a “theme-park” package. We know you want to know and understand the real Italy that is still there waiting for you, and we are here to help with that.
So, again, how is that possible? How is it possible to come to this magical peninsula, see all you want to see and yet still practice a “responsible tourism” that minimises all the negative impacts while yet enhancing the benefits to and respecting the rights of the local populace? There is a way and there are some very simple rules to follow and it starts with every individual “traveller.” For most of our DI clientele these are a given, we know, but it may serve to encourage you to pass on the word and to inform your fellow travellers as you go.
Simple Things to Do to Encourage Respectful Tourism
We all do it, us too even after all this time, we get so caught up in the moment that we can easily forget the places we are responding too are, primarily, there because of the local population. In so many cases these days, it is the locals who suffer most on a day to day basis, no more so than in Venice. But there are simple things we can keep in mind as we go - and this applies to all places we visit - not only for our own actions but in encouraging those around us too:
1. Choose to travel out of high seasons - try the magic of "winter" travel. October/November is always my favourite time, and even into December when it is much easier to feel part of the real life of a city. Know when the major local holidays are. Easter is a particularly busy time of year as Italians travel too so roads and centres can be congested by tourists and locals alike.
2. Select your days of the week to go into highly popular places, for example, don't go to Venice for a day tour on a Sunday, it is when all the Italian visitors go too, adding a huge impact on services. And choose the time of day when larger groups must be taken to lunch or are on the charter bus heading blindly for the next part of their whistle-stop tour - try middday (while everyone else is at lunch) or close to closing times for museum entries. We were once the only ones left in the Sistine Chapel and had it to ourselves for a good, spectacular and unforgettble 10 minutes.
3. Use only registered accommodation places. Be wary of individuals selling their own premises for you. There are little or no guarantess governing these offers. It is why we only offer accommodtion venues we have personally vetted for you, always supprting the genuine local providers. If you do, make sure you read all the reviews but also be aware that people from different countries have different expectations and requirements. Their views may not be your experience of the same place. Ask around for personal recommendations, or ask us what we think.
4. Seek out local artisan products, ask the provenance of what you buy. Choose local producers/manufacturers where possible. Pay to go into museums and sites and make your purchases there as they are typically of good quality and are produced by/for the site itself. I always head to the book store/gift shop after any visit. Very often the publication you seek can only be purchased there, on site.
5. Ask the locals where they would go for a meal and try it out - don't just follow a guide book. Once any place appears in any kind of a published "recommended" list it will not remain that quaint, corner eatery for long. Take a longer walk, turn the corners and look for that little, out of the way place that can become your "local" for a short time.
6. If you are on a day's outing, avoid buying food from street vendors that then means finding somewhere to sit and eat. Many local government authorities are now invoking a law that allows local police to physically remove (and charge) any offenders. This is in an attempt to make people show respect for those amazing fountains and piazza spread across every Italian city, that are there for all to enjoy without having to step over all those sitting to eat a sandwich or to dodge the over-filled receptacles not built to cater for this kind of overwhelming waste. I understand that many travellers try to manage a good budget by eating simply, but there are so many Italian "tavola calda" (pre-prepared foods - hot & cold) around in most cities where you can sit at a table, and have access to a toilet, without making a dent in your daily allowance. On that same issue, if you do get "caught short," go into a bar, buy a bottle of water or a snack, then you can happily use their conveniences. It is a simple solution as most Italian cities do not have many visible public toilet services.
7. On that same theme, many local authorities have also now banned the use of selfie sticks. Again, it is a measure to stem thoughtless tourists clambering over precious stones and monuments (even climbing light poles) to get that quick snapshot. Take your photos of course, but do be aware ot these new laws and try to understand the impact some behaviours, more than others, have on the local population.
8. Do engage the locals in conversation, even if you don't speak Italian well. I once had an amazing connection with an old man looking after the regatta boats housed in one of the old salt warehouses in Venice. While my Italian language is good, he spoke a very close-mouthed Venetian dialect which meant I lost almost every second word. But the exchange was priceless, one-on-one, and we both walked away happier for the real connection.
9. And never, never, forget that the places you visit are there, first and forever, for the local population. If you are standing on a bridge or in a narrow walkway, keep to one side or the other to allow others to pass. How many times have I witnessed older people struggling with shopping buggies desperatley trying to navigate a way through a throng of unseeing tourists or trying to get a seat on a bus. Ok, little old ladies in Rome can seem pushy sometimes but wouldn't you feel the same if your local bus (and only form of transportation) was constantly crowded with loud foreigners shouting at each other from front to back or worse, with back packs banging into your head at every move?
If we consider all of these things and think about how we would react oursleves if even 200 people descended in our special part of the world (even a dozen in my small hamlet), we may be able to lift the spirits of those places we visit and leave at least one or two good impressions on the locals. DI clients we know, travel well and already are aware of many of these issues, but it is in spreading the word where hope lies so that we true "travellers" may continue our journeys of discovery while yet contributing to those special places that continue to draw us in.
Happy travelling . . .