The State of Tourism in Italy

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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.

Rick's ItalyFor 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.

tourism in italy

Friendly Locals

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.

Southern Italian transportation

Maybe I should just walk…

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!)

Buon viaggio!

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Comments

  1. Great post Rick! We can’t wait to grab lunch or dinner with you guys in Lake Como!

    I know exactly what you’re talking about here and unfortunately Bell and I are part of the 87% who has not ventured south of Rome.

    That was meant to change as the plan was Sicily for May. But way more flights on Ryanair to Milan Bergamo changed our plans.

    • Yours is a case in point, Alex. You wanted to go to the south but weren’t able to find convenient transportation. Well, at least I’m glad that we’ll have a chance to meet up near Lake Como!!

    • My seventh trip to Italy will be in September and it’s my first south of Rome. I’m going to the Amalfi Coast which I have been longing for for some time. The difficultly getting there has been the issue for me. I’m biting the bullet as they say and will have a driver to get me from Naples to Sorrento and again to Positano and for a day your to several towns, for a tour to Pompei and lastly back to Sorrento and finally back to Naples to depart. A lot of planning but of. Purse a lot more money. Thankfully I can do it but this is far more trouble and costly than getting to Rome, Tusczny including Florence, the lakes , etc….

  2. Joan Schmelzle says:

    Can’t wait to read about your trip. I think I did comment on your not including two of my favorite areas Sorrento and Naples. Another blog I read also referenced the article you mentioned. She had avoided Naples until she found a guide to do the town right with the next time she goes. That is a good step for her. But my advice is don’t wait, just be sensible.
    The last time I was there (2012) provided a couple of my best tri stories. Also quoting my own trip review “Naples is an ugly city but you can go through a door and find great beauty!”

    • I love Naples, and I totally agree with your review. It’s a city of contrasts. So is Rome, I guess, but in Naples it’s even much more apparent. That said, yes, a first-time visitor would be well-advised to hire a seasoned local guide.

  3. Any reason you’re not going to Molise?

    • You’ve revealed my greatest sin of all…NOT going to Molise! Why? Because that’s where my great-parents lived before emigrating to the US 100 years ago. I was there in 2010, but your’re right, I should have included it in this tour, too. Maybe I’ll need to do a “roots” tour next year and I can also visit my grandmother’s hometown in Calabria…

      • Hi, Rick.
        Which province of the Molise region did your grandpa come from?

        • Hi Antonella! He was from a tiny little village in the Campobasso region called Bagnoli del Trigno. About 2,000 residents when he left…about 800 today.

          • Thanks ☺
            I am impressed by the amount of people emigrated from my small region to the Americas.
            Bagnoli del Trigno is actually in the province of Isernia, but not that far from Campobasso (~ 15-20 miles).
            I was born in Campobasso; both my parents from a tiny village named Toro, where I live.
            In regard to me, I think to be in a big “trouble” ☺ (a special friendship with an American)…
            Not sure it will be music to their ears for my parents, but you never know ☺ (time to leave the nest).
            Let’s stay in touch, Rick.

  4. Bellavia says:

    Calabrese boyfriend, I know the Salerno-Reggio problem all too well. It’s a depressing story. I thought Beppe’s article was on point and am curious to read your thoughts along the way and after your trip. :) A lot of my Southern friends ask why Americans “don’t come to the sea in Calabria or Puglia” and I told them it’s not exactly a snobbery, but that Americans who want to go to the beach can get a cheap plane to somewhere in the US/islands…..one wouldn’t think to holiday in Italy for the sea, like northern Europeans do. Another point I agree on with Beppe’s article is the difficulty in mobility once you want to go past Rome….mainly train service. Unless one is really determined to see Naples, the Basilicata, Calabria etc etc, getting there involves a lot of effort many tourists don’t want to exert, and a LOT of extra time many tourists don’t have (European or non).
    I also think a lot of Americans are ‘afraid’ of the language thing. It’s well known in Rome, Florence and Venice you could easily get by with only English. I feel a lot of people assume in the South, ‘nobody speaks English’, which isn’t exactly true—and they’re usually happier to help, I’ve found!

    • All great points. Yes, for Americans it seems that it’s the inconvenience more than anything else. Plus, if you go to Italy just once in your life, you don’t want to go back home and tell your friends that you DIDN’T see the coliseum, grand canal, and David. For Americans, visiting Europe becomes somewhat of a checklist. And yes, if you just want a nice beach, Florida , Bahamas, and the Caribbean are so close.

      • Bellavia says:

        Yeah, another good point about the ‘check list. ‘ Unfortunately it’s difficult to travel to Italy multiple times for many people (thanks airline prices), so David and the Colosseum make the list. I have noticed in places like Tropea there are usually a lot of tourists from N. Europe, but that’s about it, aside from locals.
        I have been thinking about this article/situation….and my boyfriend reminded me of, despite being from Calabria, he only knew of beach apartments or hotels to stay in while travelling around the coast via friends/word of mouth. He’s right….when we tried looking for places online, very few popped up (aside from bigger resort type places, of course)….and if places did have websites, you had to call to check availability, blah blah blah. In Sibiri, for example, most places only had their own adverts hanging outside. Some better promotion (outside of the regional tourism boards, aihme…) might be useful too.

  5. Bonnie Melielo says:

    Maybe next year you can plan a similar blogging trip but just visit all of the lovely and interesting places south of Rome. :-) We have traveled down to Naples, Benevento, as far south as Soverato. Yes, mainly for family research but we have had nothing but amazing experiences. Will continue to return. My husband made the observation: in the “north” (above Rome) most people will respond to your greeting of Buona Sera, Buon Giorno. In the South they greet you first!!

    • Bonnie, in fact, I was thinking the same thing…I need to do a tour of JUST the South. And yes, it will give me the chance to follow up on my family history research, too!

    • Rick, as… Rick Steves himself would say, I can only wish you “Happy Travels”! And Bonnie – the area around Rome is the region of Lazio, which is part of Central Italy (along with Tuscany, Abruzzo, the Marches and Umbria). Thankfully we Romans aren’t neither Northerners nor Southerners! ;-)

      Hey, what about Abruzzo? Lovely region but nobody ever seems to notice it…

  6. Hello Rick,
    Awaiting to hear the conclusion of your planned tourism in your unique blogging style!!!
    Buon Viaggio..

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