How Industrial-Style Tourism Is Hurting Italy

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CC BY 2.0. Dan Davison

The influx of money that tourists bring may be good for the economy, but many Italians are saying, 'Enough!'

Italy is facing a crisis that some countries can only dream of – too many tourists! With 52 million visitors arriving in 2016, almost matching the country’s entire population, many Italians are overwhelmed by the surge of interest in their beautiful Mediterranean nation. Tourism is good for the economy, yes, but it can also be destructive. Tourists litter, leave fingerprints, trample undergrowth, and contribute to marine fuel pollution on ferry rides. Even their presence changes the laidback atmosphere for which Italy is famous, with crowds of selfie-stick-waving gawkers and stressful lineups at every historical site.

Popular destinations like Venice, Capri, Florence, and Cinque Terre are trying to limit the numbers of tourists. Just this month, Cinque Terre instituted a cap on the number of people allowed onto the stunning walking trails linking five exquisite cliff-side villages; in Florence, a temporary city decree has been allowed to raise the cost of entry tickets for tourist buses.

Cinque Terre train

Kylie & Rob -- Every time a train rolls into this tiny village of 1000 inhabitants hundreds and hundreds of tourists jostle get a seat - causing a fair bit of chaos between embarking and disembarking passengers./CC BY 2.0

But on the island of Capri, says the Wall Street Journal, things haven’t gone so well. Mayor Giovanni de Martino is currently fighting with his cousin, mayor of the only other town on Capri, to stretch the length of time between ferry-boat arrivals from five minutes to twenty. So far, de Martino has been unsuccessful.

Residents of Venice are also frustrated with the colossal cruise ships that pull into port. The city receives 15 million visitors a year in a space five times bigger than Central Park. WSJ reports:

“Earlier this month, Venetians held a symbolic referendum calling for something to be done about the huge cruise ships that disgorge millions of tourists each year and sail perilously close to St. Mark’s Square. They are angry that a 2012 government decree calling for them to be rerouted is so far a dead letter.”
Rialto bridge, Venice

© K Martinko -- Crowds on the Rialto Bridge in Venice

When I visited Venice five years ago, there was an enormous cruise ship parked beside the waterfront. It towered over the church spires on land nearby, and looked utterly out of place. Supposedly it had brought thousands of curious tourists to swarm the walkways and canals of Venice for a day, forking out money all the while, making its presence a necessary evil.

I think the problem lies in “industrial-style tourism.” It is the antithesis of slow travel, a concept we’ve written about on TreeHugger. Similar to industrial-scale agriculture and fast fashion, industrial-style tourism is a way of moving people around the world as efficiently, easily, and cheaply as possible. This is done on cruise ships, at all-inclusive resorts, and on enormous coach buses. Industrial tourism enables people to get away from home, see places, and check them off the bucket list without really experiencing them, navigating them, or interacting with them on a personal level.

Being an industrial traveler certainly makes it easy to say you’ve been somewhere, much like eating cheap meat puts food in your belly and shopping at Zara puts a new dress in your closet, but I’d argue that the ‘production process’ is less beneficial to the native inhabitants of a country than you might think – even damaging, as Italy is experiencing.

Cruise ship travelers do not need accommodations, transportation, or even much food because they get it all on board their foreign-owned vessel. Bus travelers need a few more resources, but because of the group size, they tend to seek out large-scale hotels and restaurants on the outskirts of cities, and they’re unlikely to venture into small communities that are off the beaten path. All-inclusive resorts offer minimal compensation to locals, with the UN Environmental Program estimating,

“Eighty percent of what travelers spend on all-inclusive package tours ‘go to the airlines, hotels, and other international companies (who often have their headquarters in the travelers’ home countries), and not to local businesses or workers’.”

All this is to say that, if Italy focused on placing limitations on industrial-scale tourism – cruise ships and coach buses, primarily – it would probably see the swiftest reduction in numbers. Such a move would also encourage travelers to consider ‘slow travel’ options, which might be costlier and more time-consuming than quick flights and cruises and package deals, but are worth waiting and saving for, not least of all because they’re gentler on the planet.