Italy moves to reform its tourism industry

Over the last two years, Italy's massive tourism sector has been a study in contrasts: first too many tourists crowding the country's most popular spots, then almost none at all. Now, the sector is seeking to strike the right balance between the two extremes.

Before the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Italy, the big worry about tourism was overcrowding: the impact infrastructure, the environment and the quality of life of residents as a result of the millions of tourists who clustered in a handful of locations, like Florence, Rome and Venice.

Then, with the pandemic, tourists practically vanished amid coronavirus lockdowns and travel restrictions. The tourism sector, which was responsible for pulling in 236.4 billion euros ($280.6 billion) in revenue in 2019, produced just 115.8 billion euros last year, according to the data firm Statista.

According to most estimates, the sector is not expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels until late 2023 or early 2024, but political leaders and many working in the sector are taking steps now to assure that, as the sector strengthens, it avoids the overcrowding problems that marred tourist centers before.

"The goal is to reform the sector so that it offers a higher and more personalized level of service, and options that are less centralized than before," Gianfranco Lorenzo, head of the research department for Florence's Center for Touristic Studies, says.

"Italy should de-emphasize the reliance big tour buses that all pull into parking lots and overwhelm a small town for a few hours, (but promote) more high-quality tourism that shows visitors the country's marvels beyond the few dozen places everyone knows about," says Lorenzo.

Valeria Minghetti, the chief researcher at the Center for International Studies the Economics of Tourism at Ca' Foscari University in Venice, says the problem of overtourism is not unique to Italy.

She notes that other popular tourist destinations in Europe, such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Paris, have similar problems.

"There's no reason people should be lined up to see famous site when there are many that are just as important and just as impressive that too few people know about," Minghetti says.

Those strategies are already in development.

This summer, for example, many Italian cities are trying to focus the attention of visitors outdoor attractions like sprawling gardens and architectural ruins, where visitors can remain spread out to keep coronavirus infection risks low.

Florence's Uffizi Galleries, of the most visited museums in Italy, has launched the "Uffizi Diffusi" initiative-the name roughly translates to the "Uffizi Scattered"-which includes displaying some of the gallery's collection in museums in smaller towns around Tuscany to help draw tourists who might otherwise have spent their time in overcrowded Florence.

Uffizi director Eike Schmidt believes the gallery's plan can serve as a blueprint for other parts of Italy and even in other countries.

Before the pandemic, Italy attracted an average of nearly 100 million tourists each year, according to calculations by the Italian Government Tourist Board. Lorenzo, from CST-Firenze, says reducing the impact of tourists does not mean the country will have to host fewer tourists in the future.

"In a few years we could even have more tourists than we had before the pandemic," he says. "But for that to be sustainable, they just have to be spread out more evenly."