Authentic Tourism During COVID-19: The Case For The Albergo Diffuso

The model of the albergo diffuso invites the discerning, COVID-19 cautious consumer into disparate buildings within a fully-functioning community.

Albergo Diffuso in Castiglione del Terziere
Davide Papalini / CC BY-SA

The model of the albergo diffuso invites the discerning, COVID-19 cautious consumer into disparate buildings within a fully-functioning community.

As the summer holidays of 2020 wrap up, a lackluster but earnest tourist season has done more for tourism research than many previous seasons combined. Through navigating the to go/not to go crises, mass tourism was replaced on an expedited timeframe by the discerning tourist who gives considerable weight to external conditions. On the spectrum of sustainable tourism, traveling with COVID-19 looming in those scenic backdrops pushed us one giant step forward to the proliferation of the new tourist approach — the albergo diffuso, a mindset that we had only been inching towards previously.

The search for authenticity

As the tourist of today distances themselves from the tourist of yesterday, the search for authenticity was the driver that pushed us to seek cultural value woven throughout our travels, not just in the finite borders of cultural institutions that we day-visited. Every moment became an opportunity for cultural exchange, as the model of ‘tourist’ strained more towards ‘traveler’. This ‘new tourist’ looked differently in different places of course, as authentic experiences purportedly carried the intrinsic flavor of the local community and the land.

And authenticity has received a boost; now coupled with non-discriminatory public health preferences, visiting a locale may mean off-season, small groups, and alternative accommodations. Convincing us that the back door is the right door has never been easier.

Now is perhaps the golden moment to inject further momentum into one tourism revolution in particular that has already gained traction: the albergo diffuso. 

A hotel which is not built

As is common with the most culturally rich ideas, albergo diffuso is best left untranslated, the term itself embodying the creed that it professes. The movement’s creator and founder, tourism marketing professor Giancarlo Dall’Ara, describes the concept best through the cover art of a free e-book available for download in Italian and English:

Albergo Diffuso
Albergo Diffuso: un modello di ospitalità italiano nel mondo. Image: albergodiffuso.com

The model of traditional hotels invites tourists to self-contained properties separate from local people and activities: at best providing economic benefits through employment and spending for host communities, and a suite of convenient amenities for consumers; at worst altering the character of the host city and jeopardizing traditional ways of life, and offering consumers sub-par amenities in artificial packaging.

Worse still when artificial packages are sold at a premium as authentic experiences. 

The model of the albergo diffuso invites the discerning, COVID-19 cautious consumer into disparate buildings providing unique services bringing them around a fully-functioning community in limited-capacity settings. The guest reception is often located in a centralized building, with rooms and restaurant facilities scattered throughout the town in traditional buildings. 

The gatekeeping mechanism to protect the brand is within the standards; the overseeing Alberghi Diffusi National Association expects hoteliers to maintain the traditional elements of the structures and manage dining and activities in a manner representative of the vibrancy of the community. Read: small towns, infrastructure invested in sustaining health, wellness, and productivity year-round, fresh and local gastronomy, and localized activities and entertainment without crowds. 

Travel writer James Booth describes Daniele Kihlgren, owner of the most luxurious hotel in Matera, as telling The New York Times, “Tourism screws up the identity of a place…the only way to solve this contradiction is to make sure you are obsessive about the identity of the place.”

And for today, this is the type of obsession that might be more conscientious in helping us pursue excellence in our public health procedures, instead of seeing how far we can stray from the line while still ‘in compliance’. 

Organize something that already exists

Dall’Ara sought to organize something that already exists — a something that tapped as much into an enthusiastic potential clientele as it articulated a social ask that needed to be harnessed on higher levels. We are learning something about social consciousness and collective behavior in this age, too. Consumers, companies, cities, and countries will continue to face an overwhelming collection of marginal decisions that used to be preference-based and now invoke moral/ethical/legal/patriotic themes (and social media rebuke from friends, family, and unknowns).

Living sustainably can be a matter of daily mental overload, or an innovative idea clamoring to disrupt mass tourism on a global scale. As I write this article, I’m yet living in Sardinia, surrounded by agriturismi, alberghi diffusi, and rural mountainous villages. The beaches are nearly empty and the days are growing shorter; it’s the perfect seasonal shift to embrace exploring alternative ways of doing life, instead of just exchanging one thing for another.

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