Il Bel Paese, the Beautiful Country, is distinctly used to describe Italy. It is indeed a gifted country, with a notable natural environment, a mild climate and a prominent cultural heritage. Therefore, its status among the most visited countries not only in Europe, but worldwide, is not a surprise. Tourists arrive to admire the artwork of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, to swim in the beaches of Sardine and Sicily, and to be part of the unique atmosphere of its “art cities.” However, in regards to the everyday life of the residents, are there negative impacts of massive urban tourism?
Among the Italian cities, Venice is probably the most suitable to serve as an example and response to this question. In the historic center, the absurd proportion of 353 tourists per resident gives the impression of a city that serves more as a monument-attraction, and less as a real living space. Among the visitors, a significant number are single day excursionists, or participants of cruises who only take a quick look at the canals and narrow roads, and return to their ship without contributing to the city’s economy. The touristic invasion, in combination with the flooding problem that continues to worsen, has led to an abandonment of the city center by the residents moving to other regions around the island.
In comparison to the specific situation of Venice, similar issues are presented for historic centers of other “art cities.” Rome, which is naturally the most visited city in Italy, welcomes approximately twelve million tourists every year. A 2010 study by Sapienza University of Rome showed that the authentic character of the city is in danger of alteration, due to low quality facilities that represent a "fast" tourism. The overcrowding of the city center of Florence by tourists also seems to be a constant cause of stress for its inhabitants, as indicated by a 2012 study published in the journal Tourism Geographies.
Alteration of the historic urban grid and movement of residents are new threats to the cities’ sustainability. Recently the problem of massive tourism has become object of studies and proposals, towards both an environmental and social solution. One among them points out the need to support local brands and small businesses, in order to maintain the cities’ traditional qualities, and another the imposition of new eco-taxes relevant to the touristic facilities.
What should be our attitude as architects and urban designers towards the negative impacts of urban tourism, and what other proposals-initiatives could be introduced to both protect and highlight historic cities?
Credits: Images by Marilena Mela. Data linked to sources.