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‘More local, more authentic’: How can Italy move toward responsible tourism in future?

As Italy gets reacquainted with tourism after the pandemic, the country's biggest destinations have had a chance to rethink the way things are done. American writer Mark Hinshaw in Italy's Marche region looks at how the industry could become more responsible and sustainable, and at what's already changing.

‘More local, more authentic’: How can Italy move toward responsible tourism in future?
Visitors have returned to Italian hotspots like Venice - but are those cities now changing their attitudes to mass tourism? Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Yesterday we ate in a nice restaurant. 

Eighteen months ago had I written such a mundane, boring sentence, I would have likely tapped the “Delete” key forthwith. However, it is entirely amazing how much pleasure there is sitting at a table covered with cloth and scattered with platters of well-prepared foods. 

We chatted with the staff, and the cook (the mom of the household) made us a complimentary special dish – a totally unexpected “thank you” for sticking with them when all they could do to survive was offer take-out and delivery in aluminum boxes. Those meals were good but I realized how quickly the taste can recede when there is an intervening period of even five minutes while in transit.

So we were smiling and laughing and having a splendid time over a typical two hour Italian pranzo. One writer recently compared this period to the end of Prohibition, when everyone felt released from its imposed strictures. But of course, we had to do it. 

I am hugely relieved whenever I see that the rates of Covid infection and death for Italy are almost back down to zero. It is predicted that the entire Apennine Peninsula and its nearby islands will soon be designated a “white” zone – meaning the removal of almost all restrictions.

EXPLAINED: What are the rules in Italy’s coronavirus ‘white zones’?

Of course, what this also means is a soon-to-be tsunami of tourism. We are eager to welcome back our relatives and friends and colleagues who, pre-pandemic, were a frequent part of our lives. 

One of the few benefits of this long disruption of human behavior (aside from saving lives) is that places that were hot destinations for visitors have been able to rethink how they manage the seasonal inundations.  

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Friends in Florence report that, so far as they know, the city’s famed museums and galleries are still looking to spread artworks around to various venues in the area so that crowds can be dispersed and more locales can benefit from spending by visitors. 

There is really no reason why everything has to be jammed into the centro storico, while waiting crowds perch on every horizontal surface and eat in overpriced restaurants.

Mark Michanowicz, an American who has lived in Venice for decades, operates local tours and events on traditional sailing craft. He gave me his rundown on efforts there. The initial attempt to use turnstiles to meter out the crowds just created chaos and was abandoned. Now, fees are likely to be tacked onto the costs of various activities and tickets. Already, the main cathedral charges an entry fee when it was free before the pandemic. 

READ ALSO: Virus-hit Venice delays planned tourist tax until 2022

These measures may be slow in coming because few places have yet to see massive influxes. It will take a while for numbers to ramp back up; all aspects of the tourism industry have to calibrate their business models. To be sure, the future won’t be a continuation of the past. 

The gargantuan cruise ships were kicked out of Venice, as they had no business entering the Giudecca Canal simply for the effortless photo ops that a view of San Marco gave their sedentary passengers. No longer will the delicate, ancient scale of the city be overwhelmed by floating behemoths. The city and the national government are now in hot debate about where to put them; there are few places where they are not problematic by some measure. 

But good riddance; ten cruise ships at the port at the same time, disgorging 15,000 people, is almost obscene. Unfortunately, Venice may see a few more ships docking in the center until a new location is prepared.

READ ALSO: ‘They’re back’: First cruise ship in 17 months arrives in Venice

The MSC Orchestra cruise ship was the first to arrive in Venice in 17 months, on June 3rd, 2021. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

My hope is that, eventually, the vast, charmless port area of the island, which is largely used for parking cars and which most tourists never see, can be turned into real neighborhoods, allowing Venetian families to return to the city that had been consumed with airbnbs –  almost ruining the place by turning it into an absurdly pricey theme park. 

A whole new quarter could contain just homes and shops – no hotels, no visitor attractions, no over-priced restaurants with trite tourist menus. Just quiet streets and squares for ordinary people to live, like Venice used to have not long ago. 

Perhaps local artisans would even return, instead of the low-quality blown glass molded into cheap trinkets small enough for airline carry-on bags.

Several regions in Italy have been considering how they can attract visitors but without having everyone pile into the same damn locations. One thing that would help immensely is if travel writers would stop lazily doing their “Top Ten” lists — which are always the same places. Does the world really need another article about “Discovering the Cinque Terre” or the “Secrets of the Amalfi Coast”? 

READ ALSO: Is Italy really going to offer vaccines to tourists this summer?

Over the past year, I’ve been collaborating with Italian colleagues on some principles that could direct people toward tourism that is more socially, economically, and environmentally responsible. These principles could guide marketing efforts, promotional literature, ratings of lodgings, and public investment. 

The country has – almost literally – thousands of wonderful places to visit; there is no reason why Rome or Florence or Naples should bear the brunt of sharp seasonal fluctuations. More places and more people would potentially benefit from a few simple guidelines. 

We offer these with the thought that they might also be applicable to your own part of the world. They are applicable to all forms of transport, destinations, and lodging:

  • Does it minimize environmental impacts?

Does it minimize negative effects on the natural environment? Negative effects include degradation of landforms and sea bottoms, air quality, carbon emissions, water quality, beaches, and estuaries, and the consumption of fossil fuels.

  • Does it protect historic resources?

Does it display a respect and careful regard for preserving and interpreting the cultural heritage of a place? This includes architecture, archaeology, arts, history, indigenous and successive peoples, and traditional settlement patterns. 

  • Does it create local opportunities?

Does it stimulate and support existing businesses in a place, as well as create local employment with “living wages?” This includes encouraging travelers to purchase goods, food, and services from local merchants rather than buying imports or patronizing international corporations.

  • Does it provide authentic experiences?

Does it expose people to experiences that are true representations of a place, with local guides, participants, and instructors? This includes minimizing “packaged” experiences that buffer travelers from the actual language, culture, and customs of a place, thereby reducing an understanding of a destination.

  • Does it leave a gentle footprint?

Does it minimize the disruption of the local supply of housing, the normal type of daily businesses, and the day to day life of a place? This includes paying for impacts that are unavoidable through entry fees, ticketing surcharges, and carbon offsets.  

As we re-acquaint ourselves with travel, let’s do it right.

A version of this article appeared on Seattle’s Post Alley.

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who moved to Le Marche with his wife two years ago. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.

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TOURISM

Why are so many of Italy’s beaches privatised?

Many holidaymakers will have to pay for the privilege of enjoying Italy's coastline this summer, as the number of privately-run beaches keeps growing. Why are there so many, and is this about to change?

Why are so many of Italy's beaches privatised?

Golden sands, crystalline waters and rose-tinted sunsets – Italy’s beaches are rightly known as some of the best in the Mediterranean.

But if you arrive on most parts of the coast in August, you’ll find your path blocked by sea of umbrellas and beach chairs priced at anywhere between €10 and €50 a day.

If you want a free-to-access beach, you’ll usually have to walk some distance to a small patch of sand on the least attractive and accessible part of the shore; and in some parts of the country, the entire coastline is privatised.

READ ALSO: The Italian beaches you might want to avoid this summer

Italy’s private beaches aren’t actually privately owned – they’re leased by the state to private operators under a concessions system.

But with licenses handed down without question from one generation to the next and little available in the way of any alternatives, as far as the average holidaymaker is concerned, they may as well be.

How did Italy get to this point? And are things likely to ever change?

‘SOS free beaches’

Fewer than half of the beaches on Italy’s roughly 8,000km of coastline are free to access, the environmental association Legambiente estimates in its newly published 2022 annual beaches report.

A census conducted by the State Maritime Information System in 2021 (no data has been collected for 2022) found that there were 12,166 private beaches in Italy; a 12.5 percent increase on 2018.

Vacationers sunbathe at a private beach near Santa Margherita Ligure, southern Genova, on August 11, 2011.
Vacationers sunbathe at a private beach near Santa Margherita Ligure, southern Genoa, on August 11, 2011. Photo by OLIVIER MORIN / AFP.

In regions such as Emilia Romagna, Campania and Liguria, approximately 70 percent of the beaches are privately run. In popular beach towns such as Riccione in the northeast, that figure rises as high as 90 percent; in nearby Gatteo, it’s 100.

“SOS free beaches”: the situation is an emergency, says Legambiente, whose members, along with those of the Mare Libero (‘Free Sea’) national campaigning network, have called on the Italian government to commit to making at least 60 percent of Italy’s beaches free to the public.

“The lungomare (‘seafront’) has almost everywhere become a lungomuro (‘long wall’), physical or metaphorical; a kilometre-long wall, which imprisons the sea and the beaches, takes them away from the territory, from the citizens, and hands them over to the interests and exploitation of a few,” argues Mare Libero in its manifesto.

The coastline should be returned to the community, the organisation insists: the beach “must be made available to anyone who wants to enjoy it, regardless of their economic or social status, regardless of their origin and culture.”

How did Italy get here?

Legambiente president Stefano Ciafani blames Italy’s out-of-control private lidos on the fact that the country has no limits on how much of its coastline can be privately controlled: “an all-Italian anomaly that needs to be remedied,” he sums up in an introduction to the association’s 2022 report.

Such a state of affairs would be “unthinkable” in nearby countries such as Spain, Greece or France, the report says, citing French laws that require 80 percent of beaches to be kept free of any man-made structures for six months out of the year.

MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

So why is Italy the exception?

Seaside resorts have been around in Italy for at least a couple of centuries, and beach tourism was particularly popular in the fascist era (Mussolini was a particular fan of the seaside).

Private beaches in Italy are now estimated to occupy more than 50 percent of the coastline.
Private beaches in Italy are now estimated to occupy more than 50 percent of the coastline. Photo by OLIVIER MORIN / AFP.

But beach clubs really exploded in the country’s post-war economic boom, and for many they represent the ‘dolce vita‘ lifestyle that characterised 1960’s Italy – making them actively prized by some Italians, and at least tolerated by others.

A number of concessions that were first assigned to World War I veterans in the 1920s (originally to start fishing businesses) and World War II survivors in the 1940s, before the industry took off, have remained in the same family for generations.

READ ALSO: Ferragosto: Why the long August holidays are untouchable for Italians

In 1992 the government passed a law that awarded priority to existing concession-holders and automatically renewed the concessions every six years, making it all but impossible for new entrants to get in on the scene.

This history has instilled in many lido operators the mindset that the beach does, in fact, belong to their family and not the state – even if these days many are subcontracted out to third party operators for vast sums, far from being small family-run businesses.

Operators insist that beachgoers prefer private clubs to the alternative of unfolding a towel on the spiagge libere.

“People who come to the beach want to relax, they want the services and assistance that only establishments can offer,” Ruggero Barbadoro, president of the Rome Beach Club Federation and operator of the ‘Venenzia’ club in Ostia told the Corriere della Sera news daily in August.

As the number of concessions granted has only expanded in recent decades, however – “in the last twenty years continuing at such a pace that in many towns it is now impossible to find a spot where you can freely lie down and sunbathe,” says Legambiente – there’s a general feeling that the situation has got out of hand.

Many private beach clubs have remained under the control of the same family for generations.
Many private beach clubs have remained under the control of the same family for generations. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP.

In the early 2010’s lower wage earners hit by the recession complained they had been priced out of their area, as various Italian and foreign outlets reported a ‘class war’ on Italy’s beaches.

Under Italian law, the 5m stretch of beach directly in front of the sea is always free to the public, and clubs are legally required to display signs outside their premises indicating public access routes.

But many clubs simply ignore these rules, chasing away and threatening people who try to walk through their establishments without paying.

This led to a heated altercation in June when two Mare Libero activists challenged a club manager who had hidden his sign and refused to grant them entry. The encounter became so heated that police ultimately had to intervene.

“It’s an arrogance that stems from a certainty of impunity,” Danilo Ruggiero, one of the campaigners, told the Guardian.

The situation might, finally, be about to change: a new law approved by the Italian senate at the start of August is set to bring Italy in line with EU competition rules, requiring all beach concessions to be put up for public tender by 2024 at the latest.

READ ALSO: Italy’s private beaches to face public tender in tax fraud crackdown

More importantly, for those longing for free beaches, the law states that half of the beaches in each municipality must be free to access – having the potential to revolutionise seaside towns which are now under majority private control.

Whether the measure will actually be implemented by whichever government comes to power following Italy’s general election in September, however, remains to be seen.

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