TORONTO — Travel advisors and tour operators agree: 2023 is the year of the travel bucket list.
And few destinations top those bucket lists as consistently as Italy.
But as demand for Italy surges, so too does the overwhelming influx of visitors in favourite destinations like Rome, Florence and Venice.
Over-tourism isn’t just a challenge for Italy. Many countries, especially in Europe, are grappling with big crowds and long lines at cultural must-sees in their biggest cities. The proliferation of short-term holiday rentals like Airbnb has added to the congestion, plus, of course, pent-up demand after the pandemic.
For years now the travel industry has worked to find solutions to over-tourism, from promoting year-round travel to spread the wealth from high season, to showcasing hidden gem destinations to woo travellers away from the traditional top draws.
Governments are taking action too. In Italy, that includes Venice’s entrance fee targeting day trippers – four-fifths of all tourists come to Venice just for the day, fuelled in large part by the city’s popularity with cruise passengers.
In other cases, governments have yet to act, but the calls are there, like in Rome, where the number of Airbnb-type rentals has soared so high that residents are hoping for strict measures to curb the chaos, from listing caps, to bans on new listings. Meanwhile Florence has already taken some of these steps, recently announcing a ban on short-term holiday rental listings in the city’s historic centre.
Through it all Italy remains one of the most beautiful destinations in the world, and one of the most popular with travellers.
Travelweek checked in with Salvatore Basile, country manager, Canada for the Italian National Tourist Board (ENIT), as well as with two travel advisors and a tour operator on the front lines of selling Italy, for their take.
Just last week, as part of an ongoing effort to drive interest for Italy’s hidden gems, ENIT collaborated with ‘The Most Beautiful Borghi of Italy’ for a presentation for Canadian travel agents and tour operators.
‘Borghi’ in English means villages and hamlets. The goal is to emphasize the importance of Borghi in the lesser-known areas of Italy as catalysts for promoting sustainable tourism. The national association promotes some 300 villages that range from medieval and renaissance, to marine and mountain, to rural and lake areas, for an unforgettable Italian experience.
As ENIT puts it, “in a world where mass tourism often overshadows the authentic essence of a place, small villages offer a sanctuary of tranquility and cultural immersion.”
For Canadian travel advisors looking for tips for Italy-bound clients, Basile suggests the region of Molise, and the Cilento area (both 90 minutes from Rome), the Marche region (two hours south of Venice), the region of Valle d’Aosta (“unknown to Canadians”), Volterra in Tuscany, and many small villages around Turin.
“All are easy examples of areas that can offer fantastic value and unique experiences, but for some reason are not yet on the wish list of mainstream Canadians,” he says. For those lucky travellers who have found these lesser-known spots, “some have been collecting these gems for a long time and know them very well,” he adds.
Basile says the Canadian market’s performance to Italy is now at 65% of pre-pandemic levels, in terms of arrivals and overnight stays. And he points to the ETC’s latest Long-Haul Travel Barometer, which places Italy in second place, behind France, in the Top 10 destinations in Europe for Canadians. “The forecast for tourism in Italy in 2023 is positive, it is possible that the figures reached in 2019 will be exceeded this year,” Basile tells Travelweek.
Lift is good for Italy. There are direct flights with Air Canada (Toronto and Montreal to Rome, Milan, and Venice), Air Transat (Toronto and Montreal to Rome, Venice and Lamezia) and WestJet (Calgary to Rome).
And ENIT is ready to help travel advisors sell every region of Italy, and is promoting the country with its new campaign, ‘Italia #OpenToMeraviglia’. Meraviglia means ‘wonder’ in English, and ENIT’s digital, social and OOH campaigns in Canada will “support our valued partners in selling our destination to Canadians from several socio-demographic backgrounds,” says Basile.
He also encourages agents to get more destination-specific knowledge from ENIT’s completely renewed website, Italia.it, “and to reach out to us for specific information that may help create a better experience for their repeat or new clients.”
TIPS & INSIGHTS FROM TOUR OP, TRAVEL ADVISORS
Talia May, Director of Marketing & Operations for Gateways International, says her company is consistently getting requests for Italy for summer and fall 2023, and into 2024.
“As all bookings are fully customized, for Italy specifically, we have introduced a minimum booking period of at least 40 days prior to departure to ensure enough lead time for all partners involved,” May tells Travelweek.
She reports that over the last few months, the tour operator has had passengers travel to Italy and come back very happily: “Although busy, things have been great!”
May says it’s important that agents advise their Italy-bound clients about the crowds and lines (even with Skip-the-Line Access), and to arrive at meeting points earlier than usual, as traffic is heavier.
And for those looking to travel to less crowded areas of Italy, more and more clients are considering Puglia, she adds.
Travel advisor Sandra McLeod, who runs RedDoorTravel in LaSalle, ON, told Travelweek she hasn’t had a lot of demand for Italy, “but I have had clients comment on how crowded it seems to be.”
McLeod also noted that Venice’s cruise ship ban is having an impact. “Any cruises that were previously departing from Venice now depart from another port close by – this seems to bother/upset some people as they have to be bused to Venice. Many are looking at other destinations, like Asia, New Zealand and South America – as well as river cruises.”
Another Ontario-based travel advisor, Lush Life Travel owner Sheila Gallant-Halloran, sends a lot of clients to Italy. She shared her tips with Travelweek.
“Costs are much higher than pre-pandemic, with normal four stars pricing at five star levels; and five star hotels really at a premium,” she says. “There is little availability. Some of my clients – solo ladies especially – have opted for organized and escorted touring on motorcoaches. Others might do an Italy-intensive cruise,” such as Azamara, or maybe Uniworld’s Venice Lagoon cruise, she says.
Gallant-Halloran adds that she’s been “steering more clients towards customized trips [in Italy] with private tour guides, which is the only way to do it this summer. Even still, some of my normal ‘go to’ DMC partners were so busy with demand outstripping their resource supply/ ability to work on the trips that they weren’t even accepting Italy enquiries for the past quarter plus – or they [stipulated] a very high minimum spend.”
She sums it up: “Italy is still Italy – it’s beautiful. But if you go, pack your patience because the lines will be long. And if you haven’t already hired a private guide, and still have the opportunity to find one, do it.”
This article originally ran in the June 29, 2023 issue of Travelweek. To read the issue, click here.