We’re passionate about Italy. And we’re firm believers that truly loving this country and everything it has to offer—from its ancient ruins to fantastic food, Renaissance artwork to warm-hearted people—comes with a serious responsibility.
That’s especially true of those of us in the tourism industry. At its best, tourism gives communities wealth, people a livelihood, and the travelers themselves a newfound sense of another country’s culture and heritage. And that’s why we love it.
But tourism also can have negative consequences. For example:
• In Venice, a city of less than 60,000, 20 million tourists arrive each year. Cheap souvenir shops have replaced markets and artisans’ stores, while prices have risen to the point where fewer and fewer locals can afford living there, pushing the city closer and closer to becoming theme park.
• In the Sistine Chapel, the dirt and humidity caused by 20,000 visitors each day are irreparably damaging Michelangelo’s famous frescoes.
• On the Amalfi coast, the number of people buying coral jewelry has helped deplete the Mediterranean’s coral reefs. Almost none remain today. That’s tough luck for the 25% of ocean animals who need coral to survive, not to mention the thousands of Italians who depend on those fish (that depend on the coral) for their livelihoods.
And the list goes on.
Even small, seemingly harmless decisions made by travelers can have an effect. Ordering an artichoke from a restaurant in Rome when artichokes aren’t in season might not seem like the end of the world. But when thousands of other tourists are doing the same, restaurants start changing their practices to import those artichokes from elsewhere, causing a big carbon footprint—and hurting local farmers whose in-season produce would otherwise be purchased.
All of that can seem a little depressing. But here at Walks of Italy, we’re confident that a tourism company can benefit Italy… and that travelers can, too!
Here are just some of the things we do to ensure we’re helping, not hurting, the country we love.
We travel small. Our groups are always a maximum of 12 people, meaning that no matter where we are, we leave a light footprint—and foster more interaction between our group and the local culture.
We walk. It’s obvious, but walking, rather than taking a big bus tour, is far better for Italy’s environment and architecture. We think it’s also a better way to explore the “real” Italy.
We encourage public transport. Although we offer private transfers, we try to make it as easy as possible for our clients to take the train or bus instead, even looking up train times and directions for them. (Sometimes, our recommending that they take the train is the first time they’ve considered it over driving!).
We use carbon offsets for all of our transfers. Whenever a client books a transfer with us, we calculate the amount of C02 produced. Every quarter, we purchase a corresponding carbon offset for all of our transfers. Carbon offset programs vary significantly in their effectiveness and value (here are some ways to tell the difference between them). After careful consideration, we’ve chosen to partner with the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge Afforestation Project, which has been examined and approved with a gold-level standard by carbon offset watchdog CCB Standards. And we figure this is an appropriate project to start with: After all, it’s in Louisiana.
We donate to causes that help Italy. When floods ravaged the Cinque Terre and other parts of northern Italy this fall, we immediately provided funds to rescue and reconstruction efforts (and shared with our blog readers how they could do the same). Over the next six months, we’re donating a percentage of all of our profits to relief efforts in the area.
We’ve also made a commitment to donate a percentage of the profits from all of our Venice services to the association Venice in Peril.
We’re now looking at a range of other causes that we can help. (Have an idea? Give us your suggestions by emailing us at [email protected] or contacting us on Facebook or Twitter).
We get off the beaten path. Many of our itineraries take clients away from the hordes, showing them a side of Italy that they wouldn’t otherwise have seen—and that can use their attention, and dollars, more than the touristy areas.
We patronize authentic restaurants and artisanal shops. You won’t see us at chain restaurants or touristy shops, or telling our clients to go there. Instead, on tours like our “Florence food and wine parade,” we always bring our clients to small, authentic, local, usually family-run places that take real pride in doing things the “right” way—the kinds of places that are struggling to survive in Italian cities increasingly overrun by big chains, multinational corporations and “made-in-China” souvenir shops.
And our guides don’t receive commission from any shops or restaurants. That means that when clients ask us for recommendations, they can be sure that the places are truly local favorites, not tourist joints.
Through our blog, Facebook and Twitter, we help travelers make good choices. We never want to be preachy. But we happen to think that being a responsible traveler often coincides perfectly with enjoying the most engaging, rewarding travel possible (think eating a super-fresh, locally-produced, authentic Italian meal over a microwaved dinner at a touristy joint). So we’ve written blog posts about things that make traveling more fun and ethical, like how to travel in Italy by train, stay on a farm, explore local food festivals, visit lesser-known art gems than the Sistine Chapel, and eat foods in season—to name a few.
We educate tourists about how they can “act like locals,” making tourism less invasive. One of the negative consequences of tourism is that some locals begin to use travelers’ unfamiliarity with the culture to their advantage. They might, for example, overcharge them on a meal, or issue tourists fake receipts so the transaction isn’t taxed.
Somewhat controversially—and unique among tour companies—we’ve taught our clients and readers exactly what to do in these situations. It’s something that helps travelers. But we think it also helps Italy: The more travelers who are aware of the laws and local culture, the fewer establishments can survive by merely exploiting them… and the better overall quality of food, service and products for both locals and tourists.
Interested in learning more ways in which you and your travels can help, not hurt, Italy? Here are some:
• If you love Venice, check out Venice in Peril for information and news about the challenges facing Venice—and the steps being taken to overcome them
• Although it’s in Italian, just run the Italia Nostra site through Google Translator for information on news regarding culture, heritage and more for all of Italy
• Read Revealed Rome’s “seven tips to travel ethically in Italy” for some easy ways to make your traveling leave the right kind of impact
• Check out food writer Katie Parla’s guide to responsible food tourism in Italy, a fantastic overview of what you can do to eat both well, and sustainably
• Go Green Travel Green is a fantastic resource about sustainable and "green" travel in general, with helpful posts to get you started like "46 Ways to Save Cash Now with Green Travel," "11 Tips for Greening Your Hotel Stay," and "How to Find Sustainable Souvenirs."