The State of Tourism in Italy
Last week, many of my Facebook friends and I shared the New York Times Op-Ed piece by the Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini entitled, “Why Nobody Goes to Naples.” The focus of his essay was to highlight the failure of the Italian government to capitalize on its tourism potential as a way to help improve a faltering economy, which is particularly apparent in the south of Italy.
For me, the article was especially timely because in exactly two weeks I’ll begin my blog tour. I’m starting in Milan, and then over the course of a month, I’ll work my way south to Sicily. This should provide me with a unique opportunity to notice the changes in tourism and infrastructure that Severgnini mentioned as I drift towards the mezzogiorno.
By the way, I’d like to thank the many, MANY people who responded to my email a few days ago, offering their kind suggestions along my itinerary route. I’m overwhelmed by the number of responses and still going through them. Of course, my schedule won’t allow me to take advantage of all this great advice myself, but I will try to highlight a few of them here on my blog in the coming weeks so that other readers might benefit from some firsthand recommendations other than my own.
In case you’re not on my email list (you can sign up for it, if you like), here’s the rough outline of my itinerary, updated as of today:
30 April – 2 May: Milan
2-5 May: Gittana (Lake Como)
5-7 May: Montecatini Terme (Tuscany)
7-9 May: Florence
9-11 May: Cesenatico (Emilia-Romangna, BellaVita Blog Tour)
11-13 May: Paciano (Umbria)
13-15 May: Viterbo (Lazio)
15-26 May: Back in Rome
27-29 May: Palermo
30-31 May: Trapani/Erice
1-2 June: Agrigento
3-4 June: Modica/Ragusa
5-6 June: Syracuse
7-8 June: Taormina
9-? June: Messina/Aeolian Islands
Public versus Private Initiative
In planning for my blog tour, I’ve been trying to communicate with both local tourist boards operated by regional governments, as well as individual business owners and small cooperatives who actually “have their hands in the dough,” so to speak (some of them quite literally). Without exception—in the North AND the South—I have found the entrepreneurs and private consortiums to be energetic, responsive, and very helpful. Meanwhile, the tourist boards won’t even reply to a simple email request for more information. Indeed, several emails to these government websites have been returned as “undeliverable.” In other words, there is nobody on the other end (not even a computer-generated auto-responder) to answer emails. Severgnini’s article reported that, “The Italian Tourist Board spends an astounding 98 percent of its budget on salaries.” With all those employees, you’d think that at least one person checks their inbox occasionally. Apparently not. (Then again, reliable high-speed Internet still isn’t a given in many areas of Italy.)
So yes, the onus is on the individual business proprietor and his/her circle of friends to promote their own activities with no expectation of help from the local government or tourist boards. In the coming weeks/months, I’m going to introduce a few of these nice folks to you. Some are from the North and some are from the South, but they all have one thing in common: they have a passion for their life’s work and for their local culture, and they are eager to share their enthusiasm with curious travelers. These people own small hotels or B&Bs, lead walking tours, produce olive oil and wine, run specialty stores, offer transportation services, conduct artisan workshops, and operate restaurants. They are the heart and soul of Italy, and the best hope for a struggling economy.
The Problem of the Mezzogiorno
In 1861, Italy’s first Prime Minister Cavour’s final words while in the delirium of his death throes were: “North Italy is established. There are no longer Lombards, Piedmonteses, Tuscans, Romagnolos—we are all Italians. But there are still the Neapolitans.”
Fast forward to Severgnini’s article last week. He notes that, “Annual gross domestic product in the south is just over $21,000 per capita, compared with $43,000 in the center and north.” So not much has changed… the South is left out. The North/South discrepancy in Italy has been well-documented for over 150 years. But as Severgnini pointed out, it’s getting worse, not better.
At the same time, through the eyes of most foreigners, much of what makes Italy “Italian” is found in abundance in the south. And yet, when these same foreigners visit Italy, only 13 percent of them venture south of Rome. How can we explain this discrepancy? If we believe our friend Beppe, it’s a nationwide failure by Italy to take advantage of its most precious resources: the natural and cultural beauty, which the South has in spades.
Reviewing the stops on my blog tour, you might have noticed that besides Sicily, my own itinerary is short on southern locations. It’s true, and reflecting upon this embarrassing oversight, I have to ask myself how this happened. To be honest, I think I was unconsciously turned off by the lack of infrastructure, and the additional challenges of travelling with an infant exasperated this concern. From experience, I’ve learned the hard way that high-speed rail services stop at Salerno. Further south than that, the trains creep along at an average velocity of 8.7 miles per hour…or about the same speed that my 8-month old daughter crawls after her toys.
To give an example, a couple of years ago Jess and I went from Rome to Matera (in Basilicata) by train, changing to a cattle car in Bari. The total distance is about 450 kilometers…and it literally took ALL DAY! I’m talking 7 ½ hours! Compare that to the Rome/Turin route which is 700 kilometers and takes only 4 hours, half the time.
So I guess your average foreign tourist can be excused for being put off by these overwhelming obstacles. Which is too bad, because it is in exactly these “inconvenient” locations (both in the North and in the South) that Italy really shows its best stuff. But then again, what good is paradise if it’s impossible to get there?
That’s one of the reasons that I’m so excited about this upcoming blog tour. I want to explore some of these hidden treasures in two different ways: 1) I want to tell you about a few places that you’ve never heard of; 2) for the places that you have heard of, I want to do some things that the average tourist hasn’t done. Should be fun…
I hope you’ll follow along with me on this adventure. Again, if you haven’t signed up for my email list, you can do so here (and you’ll also get my free restaurant guide, too!)