Tourism in Italy has rebounded from COVID-19 lows but not everybody is happy to see the crowds of foreigners back.
Botticielli's Venus is largely acknowledged as a Renaissance masterpiece but she has now been reimagined as a modern-day influencer as part of a campaign to attract foreign visitors to Italy that has once more sparked the debate about over-tourism.
The Greek goddess, painted in the 15th century, can now be seen travelling across Italy and posting selfies on Instagram of herself eating pizza, taking in the Roman and Venetian sights, or cycling on the Costa dei Trabocchi.
The €9 million "Open to meraviglia" (Open to wonders) campaign, which includes the production and distribution of ads in airports and train hubs around the world, was heavily criticised on social media, where users labeled it as awkward and too expensive.
It has also once more sparked discussions on how to deal with tourism.
After a forced two-year break due to the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism flows in Italy are back on track. During the first nine months of 2022, more than 89 million people checked into hotels or other accommodation facilities, 46% more than in 2021, and they spent almost 338 million nights in the country, a 40% increase from the previous year.
However, not everyone is happy to welcome back the crowds. For years, many popular destinations have been struggling to manage the thousands of tourists that flood their streets, beaches, and attractions, and are considering imposing limits and caps to tackle the issue.
Cinque Terre’s struggle with 'hit-and-run' tourism
The Cinque Terre is a seaside area composed of five small villages in the northwestern Liguria region, famous for its colourful houses overlooking the sea and its maze of tiny, cozy streets. The five towns together have fewer than 4,000 residents, but in 2022 as many as 3 million people visited the area.
Local authorities are struggling to manage such heavy flows of people.
“We need to find a balance between the demands of residents and the needs of tourists," Fabrizia Pecunia, Mayor of Riomaggiore, one of the five municipalities in Cinque Terre, told Euronews.
For years, Pecunia has been asking the national government to grant special powers to local administrations in touristic areas, in order to allow them to impose extraordinary measures to manage the crowds, potentially through a system of mandatory bookings for large groups.
According to Pecunia, the problem of over-tourism is mainly caused by “hit-and-run” tourists, groups of people who visit a location for a few hours and then quickly run to the next destination on their bucket lists.
"Most of the services we provide are targeted at this kind of visitors, such as public toilets, garbage collection, and the presence of police forces on the streets to maintain public order," she said, stating that at the moment the revenues that tourists generate in her municipality are not enough to cover for all the related expenses.
Not everyone in the area agrees with this framing of tourism flows.
"[Tourists] are a challenge we are happy to face," Pierluigi Peracchini, Mayor of La Spezia, a larger city close to the Cinque Terre area, told Euronews.
Perlacchini is however not against creating a booking system for visitors, but thinks that over-tourism is not as dangerous as other administrators might picture it.
"Tourism should be looked at as an opportunity, rather than a problem," he said. "All we need to do is get organised. As local administrators, we need to manage problems related with tourism, not only enjoy the good sides of it."
Venice’s housing problem
Venice, some 400km away on another coast, has been struggling for decades to manage the crowds of tourists that walk through its tiny bridges and calli, small streets.
Over the last couple of years, the issue of over-tourism had severe consequences on the city’s housing system, to the point where buying a house in Venice, or even finding long-term accommodation in the city centre, has become virtually impossible.
Since 2019, the Civic Observatory on Housing and Residence (Ocio) – an association of housing activists in the Venice area – has been monitoring the number of accommodations available for tourists in the city centre, such as short-term rental houses or hotel rooms. As of mid-April, there were 48,596 accommodations available for tourists in the city which counts 49,365 inhabitants.
"A city must provide accommodations for all the different segments of its society, it can’t be exclusive for people who can afford" its high prices, Francesco Penzo, an activist for Ocio, told Euronews.
Contacted by Euronews, Venice tourism councilor Simone Venturini stated that over the last couple of years the municipality has promoted "multiple social housing initiatives to encourage young couples and workers to start a family in Venice," while trying to create new skilled jobs that are not necessarily linked to the hospitality sector.
Like Pecunia in Riomaggiore, Venturini agrees that Venice should be granted special powers in order to manage the flow of tourists and tackle hit-and-run tourism, which represents "a cost for the city in terms of cleaning services, garbage collection, and public transportation."
In order to discourage hit-and-run tourists and find a healthy balance between residents and visitors, the city has been discussing for years the possibility of introducing a daily entrance fee for those who wish to visit Venice city centre. At the moment, the measure still has to be approved by the city council, and its details haven’t been publicly confirmed.
A solution from the Alps
Other areas in Italy have already introduced a booking system for tourists. During the summer months, visitors to the Alto-Adige region must book in advance in order to access Lake Braies, in the Italian Alps.
In August 2022, the region also capped to a maximum of 34 million per year the number of tourists' overnight stays. “We had reached the limit for both our resources and the demands of local residents,” Arnold Schuler, tourism councilor for the Alto Adige province of Bolzano, told Euronews.
Just like in Venice, Schuler explained that the growing number of visitors in the area is encouraging many local landlords to rent their properties on platforms like Airbnb, rather than offering them to potential long-term residents.
"In 2016, around 1,100 accommodations were available on Airbnb. By 2020, the number had quadrupled," Schuler said. "We need to guarantee high standards for both residents and tourists. Otherwise, the area loses its appeal."
Up to now, both the booking system for Lake Braies and the cap on overnight stays have been working smoothly. Will other destinations follow the same path?