Small towns are the new black: how Italy wants tourists to venture beyond cities

Italy is drowning in an embarrassment of riches – from Venice to Florence, Naples to Rome, the country often features as a top destination on any traveller’s wish list. While all of this may be good for business, unsustainable levels of mass tourism are pushing locals out of some cities in the country. The most extreme example is Venice: At its peak in the 20th century, more than 120,000 people called it home; today the population is under 55,000, while nearly 90,000 tourists can visit on a typical summer day. Meanwhile, countless picturesque towns and landmarks go unseen, because tourists rarely know they exist.

Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi
Via di Francesco,Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. Photo by: Fabrizio Ardito, courtesy of MIBACT

To restore balance, the Italian culture ministry has launched an online portal, called Cammini d’Italia, that maps historic itineraries beyond traditional tourist routes. For now, the digital atlas counts 41 entries, ranging from the most famous, such as the Appian Way and the Via Francigena, to the more obscure, like Dante’s Walk (on the sites where the poet was exiled and where he wrote the Divine Comedy), to the Peace Way, retracing battles from WWI. Be it by horse, by bike, or by foot, this network takes travellers into smaller towns, where a mix of art, history, great landscapes and local food await, all at a slower pace. In order to be featured in the collection, each itinerary had to meet 11 criteria, such as having very clear signage, services in the near proximity, an up-to-date website, and, most importantly, a safe path.

PItalian cultural ministry wants tourists to travel off the beaten track
Sentiero Liguria Portofino. Photo courtesy of MIBACT

“Tourism is a great resource for us, and I like to think of tourists as temporary citizens, which I believe we all aspire to when we travel,” says Francesco Palumbo, Director General for Tourism at the culture ministry. “So this is a great way to promote those unique yet deep experiences that one can have when visiting lesser-known sites. Eventually, by inviting and helping travellers to slow down, this atlas may also increase the average number of days that tourists spend in our country, which is currently between two and three.”

Italians want to encourage visiotrs to visit lesser-known destinations
Cammino di Sant’Antonio,San Donato bridge. Photo by: Modigliana Savermac, courtesy of MIBACT

Whether the platform will help reduce mass tourism remains to be seen. “These itineraries appeal to a different crowd from the one we see in our major cities,” says Oreste Rutigliano, president of Italia Nostra, an NGO that protects cultural heritage. “However, the Cammini d’Italia initiative is commendable as it finally drives attention to those pristine historic landscapes where the process of urbanisation hasn’t contaminated the territory yet, and, at the same time, it represents a wonderful resource for all those under-populated and dilapidated towns that young people are fleeing in mass looking for better opportunities.”

By Luisa Grigoletto

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Small towns are the new black: how Italy wants tourists to venture beyond cities
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