Can Italy solve its tourist troubles?

Photo: The MSC Magnifica seen from a canal in Venice in June 2019. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

01 June 2021 | Rebecca Ann Hughes | Apollo

Last summer, an Austrian tourist hoping to snap a casual picture with a reclining statue of Napoleon’s younger sister ended up crushing some of her delicate plaster toes as he lounged at her feet. This mishap with Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte in a museum in Possagno, northern Italy, is sadly not an isolated incident of reckless behaviour on the part of visitors to Italy – and although the Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova may be a little off the beaten track, the story has played into wider discussions of the adverse impact of mass tourism on the country’s heritage.

Such episodes, ranging from foolish antics to acts of serious vandalism, are a staple of heritage debates in Italy. As travel restrictions eased for the first time last June, some of the first arrivals in Venice from overseas caused a furore when they took an illegal dip in the Grand Canal. Backpackers have been chastised for brewing coffee by the Rialto Bridge or – in a city in which it isn’t easy to find a public toilet – using the dark alleyways as latrines. Last year a French tourist left her mark with a felt-tip pen at the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. In Rome, there have been visitors who have taken the Trevi Fountain to be a paddling pool. And at Pompeii last summer, a tourist clambered on to the roof of one of the ancient bath complexes to pose for a selfie. (Archaeological sites have also been prey to light-fingered sightseers; in October last year, a Canadian woman sent back ceramic artefacts she had stolen from Pompeii, claiming that they had cursed her.)

The behaviour of some tourists is clearly a problem. But Italy has long depended on mass tourism, with the sector contributing €237.8 billion to the economy in 2019 – 13 per cent of its GDP. Put another way, that year there were 13 million overnight stays in Venice, 15.8 million in Florence and nearly 31 million in Rome.

But the economic benefits of tourism have meant that local authorities have sometimes turned a blind eye to its accompanying problems. So, for instance, much criticism has been levelled at the cruise ships that pass through the Giudecca canal in Venice – damaging the lagoon, causing air pollution, eroding the city’s foundations and facilitating the day-tripper tourism that has overwhelmed the historic centre. But this spring Venice’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, and the president of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, welcomed the first ships to arrive as a ‘good signal’ of post-pandemic recovery – even after the Italian government had issued a decree that banned them from the entering the lagoon.

After more than a year in which the country has oscillated between lockdowns and travel restrictions, Italy’s tourism industry – and the economy as a result – is in crisis. While the return of tourists is essential, local politicians and leaders in the cultural sector are emphasising the need to rethink how visitors interact with heritage. But how far, during the enforced hiatus in tourism, have they actually rethought their strategies to manage visitors and their experience more effectively?

In March this year, the mayors of Florence and Venice set out an extensive strategy hoping to prevent a recurrence of the tourism-related problems of the past. Their proposal calls for better policing, including on-the-spot fines for vandalism of city monuments and the further development of ‘smart control rooms’ to monitor crowds. Venice’s surveillance hub has already been tracking the number of visitors and their nationalities through their mobile phones – which authorities insist accesses no personal data, after concerns were raised about privacy. The hope is that the technology will allow city authorities to activate measures such as turnstiles or to close off busy thoroughfares to non-residents when the system registers tourist congestion. 

The strategy document additionally proposes stricter regulation of tourist rental accommodation, which is outpricing locals and causing an exodus of residents from historic centres. Since 2011, both cities have collected a tourist tax for overnight stays to fund improvements to public services; Venice will also soon introduce a tax for day trippers – long mooted, but delayed until 2022 due to the pandemic – that will start at €3 and rise to €10 in peak season. Both mayors intend to curb commercial activities aimed at tourists and give precedence to artisanal businesses and neighbourhood shops. The mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, called the proposed strategy ‘a new model of tourism also linked to enhancing, promoting and protecting cities of art’.

Some of Italy’s most important museums and heritage sites have also been preparing game plans for more intelligent visitor management. At the Uffizi in Florence earlier this year, director Eike Schmidt announced an innovative project titled ‘Uffizi Diffusi’ (scattered Uffizi) aimed at easing pressure both on the gallery and the city. The initiative involves short, mid and long-term loans of artworks from the Uffizi’s stores to other venues throughout Tuscany, mainly to existing art and heritage institutions. Schmidt hopes the scheme will buoy up destinations throughout the region, tempting visitors to stay in a wider range of locations rather than honing in on the city of Florence. ‘The idea is to slow down tourism, have people stay in the Tuscan countryside for a week if not longer,’ he tells me, ‘which is much healthier not just for the artwork and for us but also for this planet.’

Dante (c. 1448–49), Andrea del Castagno. Uffizi Galleries, Florence
Dante (c. 1448–49), Andrea del Castagno. Uffizi Galleries, Florence

Dante (c. 1448–49), Andrea del Castagno. Uffizi Galleries, Florence

Opening this summer, for instance, is a one-work display of a portrait of Dante by Andrea del Castagno. The painting will be exhibited in the artist’s birthplace, Castagno d’Andrea, in the visitor centre for the surrounding national park. The idea is for visitors to spend an extended period in the location. They can combine natural tourism activities with cultural tourism, and are likely to spend far longer before the painting than if they were squeezing several thousand other works of art into the visit. With exhibitions like this, ‘We hope to be part of a new vision of a more healthy and more in-depth tourism,’ Schmidt says. Further partnerships are likely to be announced soon, with towns including Scandicci and Empoli having expressed interest in taking works on loan. Within the Uffizi itself, new rooms have been opened to ‘add square footage’ and popular works spread out to better manage crowds throughout the building.

The ruins at Pompeii have recently been entrusted to a new director, Gabriel Zuchtriegel. His management proposals emphasise increased vigilance, using drones, satellites and sensors to assist in supervising the site. However, even with technology providing extra eyes in Venice and Pompeii, it is still impossible to monitor the behaviour of all visitors and prevent misdemeanours. Architect Antonio Irlando, who took the photo of the selfie-snapping sightseer on top of the Roman baths, heads up a local association that monitors the state of conservation and visitor interaction at Pompeii’s ruins. Irlando agrees that gadgets and technology can provide additional assistance. Fundamentally, though, sites as large as Pompeii need more custodians and security staff. ‘If a tourist leans against a fresco and damages it, what can a drone do? It is a passive device,’ he says.

Irlando adds, however, that for things to change holidaymakers themselves need to educate themselves in advance about their destinations. ‘We need guidance about how to use and enjoy beauty […] and a natural respect that derives from understanding the importance of the place we are in,’ he says. If tourists were more aware that they are interacting with precious and fragile treasures, with heritage that belongs to all of us, might that inspire more respectful behaviour?

At the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, director James Bradburne is taking this idea further. He is determined to eradicate once and for all the disinterested, bucket-list tourism that has been so dominant in recent decades. In order to build stronger links between visitors and the gallery, Bradburne has eliminated single-visit tickets and instead introduced membership cards. These are valid for three months of unlimited gallery visits and a year of online access. The gallery has built an online platform, Brera Plus, with a wealth of complementary content that, Bradburne suggests, ‘may see users from all over the world like the online content so much they never visit the museum in person’.

Members will additionally have the opportunity to express their views on the gallery and its programme, Bradburne explains, including suggesting exhibitions that reflect their interests. The idea is to create a community invested in the museum space and a governing board that listens to the interests of that community. ‘I hope we never go back to the mistakes we made before,’ Bradburne says. ‘Mass tourism was a mistake that created a fragile economy, peaks in visiting, cultural participation that was very trivial and superficial. It turned Italy from a nation of creative designers to a nation of winemakers and restaurant waiters.’

Increased policing and vigilance at historic sites is no doubt an important step in curbing touristic negligence, but Bradburne’s initiative at the Brera points to a potentially more effective solution, one in which prevention is better than cure. It advocates for a change in the very concept of being a visitor. Instead of just passing through without leaving a trace – or, worse, leaving a damaging one – the visitor enters a ‘contract’ with the museum or heritage site. And that’s not just a monetary investment; it’s also a pledge of care.


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