Proximity Tourism: An Opportunity For Italian Rural Areas?

The initiatives taken as a result of the pandemic may pave the way for a new way of traveling. But are we ready for it?

proximity tourism

The initiatives taken as a result of the pandemic may pave the way for a new way of traveling. But are we ready for it?

“[…] I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough

Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades

For ever and ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use! […]”

Alfred Tennyson — Ulysses (1883)

I remember my 16 years old self reading this poem and dreaming of far-away lands I was going to discover in my next adult age: everyone grown up in a small town dreams to go away, travel and discover, like Ulysses did — even though Greek islands are not really close to my hometown. Ten years later, I find myself with a job, few days off, the desire to escape everyday life for a while, and a pandemic going on. Where travelers — or better to say, dreamers — like me should go this summer? Is proximity tourism the solution?

It is clear that the limitations in force at the European level will frustrate our wanderlust — not to mention those at the international level, as EU borders will remain closed at least until July 1. Each and every EU country has agreed on different criteria for foreign arrivals, but most EU countries are expected to end internal border controls by June 15. However, the resulting legislative chaos, combined with anxiety and uncertainty about a new wave of Coronavirus, will result in a summertime completely different from the previous ones. So, I sit down and ask myself: what if that ‘untravelled world’ was just outside the window?

Proximity tourism: need or trend?

‘Proximity tourism’ is the kind of tourism that aims to (re)discover the places nearby, those that, precisely because they are too close and familiar, we never considered as possible destinations for our holidays or weekends off. It seems like a buzzword or a new hipster trend, but it sounds so only because we are so used to exotic, far-away trips, low-cost airlines, that traveling close to home may have become nonconformist. We need to reshape our ways of traveling also in light of climate change, as it is well known that taking a flight generates more carbon emissions than an average person in many countries around the world produces in a whole year.

Italian tourists in Italy

As a matter of fact, domestic tourism is no news for Italian travelers. ISTAT data show, in fact, that 76.7% of trips done by Italians have Italy as destination, while 23.8% are directed towards foreign destinations (European countries in most of the cases). Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino South-Tyrol were the six most visited Italian regions in 2019. Domestic tourists are mainly looking for seaside resorts, mountain resorts and art cities. However, their preferences differ from those of foreign tourists: while Italian tourists prefer the Adriatic coast of Emilia-Romagna, foreign tourists are directed instead towards Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence, followed by South Tyrol and the Garda Lake. Given the changing economic conditions, many families are likely not able to afford going on holiday this summer: this is the reason why the government introduced a holiday bonus for families (with a disposable income less than €40,000) which can be spent in accommodation facilities located in Italy.

Away from clichés

Unfortunately, the problem is not only an economic one. Italians mainly go on holiday in August, putting pressure on the destinations in terms of prices, traffic and environmental impacts, going hand in hand with a higher risk of contagion. The solution seems to be straightforward: tourists should be encouraged to discover new destinations, away from overcrowded cities, beaches and mountain resorts, possibly in their regions of residence. Fortunately enough, Italy is a country characterized by small villages (borghi), wonderful hidden destinations in remote areas where physical distancing is more feasible than in big cities and well-known resorts. Some municipalities and regions are already working in this direction, offering incentives to tourists willing to discover these destinations.

Some initiatives

In Val di Sole (a valley located in Trentino), for instance, everyone who worked in the hospitals during the emergency phase is offered a 3-nights holiday in selected hotels; Valle dell’Angelo, a small village in Campania, offers a bonus to tourists which can only be spent in the municipality. These measures are meant not only to stimulate tourism, but also to counterbalance the negative effects of depopulation, a phenomenon that affects many rural, internal areas and threatens their own survival.

These initiatives do not come out of the blue: the association I borghi più belli d’Italia (the most beautiful villages of Italy) gathers small typical villages and offers them a certification system, with the aim of protecting and enhancing cultural heritage. A complete list of such villages is available here. The Italian Touring Club promotes a similar initiative called Bandiere arancioni (orange flags), a tourism-environmental quality label aimed at favoring sustainable tourism practices.

The risk here is apparent: what if even small villages get crowded? Small accommodation facilities and restaurants may have difficulties in distancing their guests, or even it may not be economically viable for them to reopen. Proximity tourism needs organization and clear procedures to be followed, if facilities do not want to put at risk their guests’ health. Moreover, can holidays nearby replace trips in exotic destinations? What are we looking for when planning a trip, and can we find it in places we already know? In the end, everyone will have to find his/her own way to balance desire for adventure, risk containment and environmental impacts.

The doubt, in the end, remains: would Ulysses have become what he is if he only travelled to Ithaca? Only history will tell.

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