Interview with Patrizio Roversi: Quality tourism? It is the one that creates relationships

Long interview with Patrizio Roversi, historical face and pioneer of tourism on TV together with Syusy Blady with the program "Turisti per caso." With him we discussed how tourism has changed in the last 30 years. And what quality tourism should look like.

The tourist who “enjoys” is the goal to be achieved to avoid a massification of tourism. This is what Patrizio Roversi, one of the two “Tourists by Chance” who with Syusy Blady gave birth to the RAI program of the same name in the early 1990s (from 1991 to 2006 with variations such as “Sailors by Chance,” “Mysteries by Chance,” “Evolved by Chance” with passage also to Mediaset networks) that for a long time made them discover the world through their dreamy and sometimes even a bit bewildered eyes, as two Italians similar to us in every way, who would pick up and set off to tourist destinations camera and map in hand. Thirty years have passed since Patrizio Roversi and Syusy Blady began to tell the world on TV, and tourism in the world has become a mass phenomenon, unconstrained by census, distance or means of transportation bringing out new problems that one would never have thought of imputing to tourism. The childlike air of tourists has turned into the ravenous air of the “hit and run” in our cities of art so much criticized already in the years before the pandemic by Covid and which after two years of zero tourism is recurring in the exact same way today gaining more and more space in the public debate. Windows on Art asked Patrizio Roversi how he sees the phenomenon with his experience as a 30-year professional tourist.

Patrizio Roversi. Photo: Italy Slow Tour
Patrizio Roversi. Photo: Italy Slow Tour

Research by the World Bank calculated that from 1990 to 2019 those who travel for leisure doubled to the figure of 2.4 billion people worldwide. You right in those 1990s started your successful broadcast, taking the viewer around the world, sometimes even to unthinkable places, as two ’good-natured’ tourists with camera in hand and a lot of curiosity. And you have been very successful. What has changed about traveling and the traveler in these 30 years?

Paradoxically, we have regretted what we did! Of course it is a provocation, but since when we started the show in 1990 the slogan was “If we can do it, everyone can do it,” “If we do it, you do it,” “Travel, travel, travel, because tourism is a cultural duty, almost a right.” But now in the face of the quantitative dimensions that tourism has taken at the expense of the qualitative characteristics that tourism is embracing we have regretted it, in the sense that from “Tourists by chance” we have gone to random tourists...

Have you wondered why this evolution?

We have tried to understand the reasons, and they are many. First of all, the world has changed, globalization has made great strides, and globalization also means homogenization. When we went to Japan in the 1990s we shot five 100-minute episodes in five days because everything, every place was different and deserved to be told, wherever we attached the camera there were new places to marvel. In so many years, however, the locations have become more similar, offering the same things, the same showcases... Now of “non-places,” as the urbanist architect Marc Augé called them, there are many... Then there was the advent of low-cost airlines that made it much easier to travel, plus the web and social networks exploded.

Whereas thirty or twenty years ago our broadcast ’strategist’ had to struggle so much to find places to go, people to meet, and trivia to tell... now they jump on you, there are influencers telling you about the world! Too bad that in a vertical shot of a cell phone that must last a few seconds of a Tik Tok at the end it’s not like they tell you about it in a comprehensive and interesting way. Bruce Chatwin went to Patagonia and in 1977 wrote a book about it, recounting his trip, and it is only right that one who goes to Patagonia today should read Chatwin because otherwise he comes to Patagonia and says, “But there’s nothing there!”, and it is true: I confirm that in Patagonia there is nothing, but there is everything, only you have to know it, you need someone to tell you first. So, let me tell you, mass, industrial tourism (although that is a bad definition) has led (and I am speaking to you from Venice) to a great superficiality and homogenization.

People often contrast mass tourism with quality tourism by bringing up almost an equivalence between mass tourism as poor (sandwich, canteen, hit and run) versus quality tourism which is the preserve of wealthy vacationers who on a trip spend and spend between services attached to and connected with the trip. The so-called big spenders. But really is quality tourism the preserve of the wealthy?

Absolutely not. That is not the discriminating factor. The so-called accidental tourists represented several hundred thousand people who identified with the style of the show and when we opened the site in the early 1990s.

Again, you were pioneers!

They became a real community that exchanged experiences and advice on their travels, the famous Guides by Chance. The authors of which were simply enthusiasts of a particular location who made the information available to others and ran the forums.

Does the tourist have a passion for discovery or just the idea of relaxing?

The accidental tourist by definition has to have a passion for the place where they want to go, it has to spark you: it can be anything, a colleague’s story like reading a book or a documentary or a movie. You have to want to go to a place because you have a specific interest, though.

Whereas today between Google Maps, TripAdvisor and smartphone-friendly websites we have gone from the somewhat bewildered but intrigued by your ironic reports to the hyper-informed tourist who wants to do it all himself.

On going it alone or through travel professionals and that is with tour operators there was a diatribe 20 years ago because there was an exaggerated tendency to go it alone skipping the mediation of those who did this work professionally. And often the tour operators were huge fans of a destination that they then became experts on and took other tourists there.

And so we wanted to be cautious: if you wanted to go, say, to Yemen, it’s not like you could go there d alone....

And now?

Now there are these big groups organized by non-Italian tour operators that seem to be a real wild import of tourists to whom they offer the tour in Europe and they can only put 2-3 Italian stops there. But the result is that the Italian stops are always the same: a postcard in Venice, Rome and maybe Florence. We are a bit colonized by this management of tourism, we don’t even have an air carrier anymore, so flights from America or Japan most of the time Today in the motivation to travel how much does an advertising campaign, like that of a Ministry of Tourism, matter compared to the many influencers on social media?

In my opinion the big issue today is that tourism has become a status. One wants to come to Venice and at all costs wants to get the picture in St. Mark’s Square, but it’s one thing to come to show the picture to your office colleagues maybe in Holland. It is one thing to understand where you are and why you are here instead of there. I, for example, had a very interesting visit yesterday to the house museum of Mariano Fortuny, an extraordinary character, in extreme calm since there were not many people and when we leave we find the crowd at Rialto where everyone wanted to just take their picture or go to the boutiques to buy little dresses. So the discriminant in my opinion is not rich tourist or poor tourist, it is also full of rich tourists who follow a guide in a group and do “gregging” but they are bored, they run away from pee, they are thirsty... tourists who ’suffer’, the going so haphazard because it is part of a program, that is what should be avoided. So the discriminator is the tourist who enjoys because he solves a curiosity of his own.

What is tourism for you, what has travel represented?

For me tourism is relationship between the tourist and the local reality. These huge groups cannot have relationships with the historical centers. I just came out of a supermarket, and if there had been a tourist looking at the cheeses in curiosity to decide which one to buy maybe we would have started discussing which one was the best. The problem, however, is that there were 300 tourists who wanted chips and Coca-Cola, and it took me twice as long to shop given the line at the checkout. And so the tourist is sometimes perceived only as an obstacle, not one to relate to.

... and residents flee because they feel their quality of life is diminished with all these people around which results in the transformation of their neighborhoods, right?

People feel invaded but there are reasons, there are economic-political choices that aim to expel residents from the inner cities. And besides being unfair it is a way to squander, ruin and destroy our heritage which is our identity: we offer foreign tourists (and others) our identity. So we have to maintain our identity with the butcher, the barber, the pharmacy....

Then there has been the proliferation of B&Bs....

They are not even real B&Bs, because the traditional B&B, as it originated in 1920s Ireland, is Mrs. Pina opening her doors to host two tourists for whom she makes their bed and prepares their breakfast, advises them what to see, all to supplement their income. Now this is no longer the case: there is a platform on the web with no direct personal relationships or relations where one chooses the accommodation, enters the house by typing a code on the door or with the keys that a third person paid for it gives them, then another person paid to do the cleaning comes. And the owners then go to live outside the center, family rental houses are no longer found, prices rise and so on. The mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, said enough is enough -- but they all jumped on him saying, “You can’t because the free market rules!”

Our country is rich in art, and the first motivation for travel is to see the artistic beauties that our cities are rich in. So how do we ensure the usability of art that belongs to everyone without the distortion of the social fabric of the cities that host them? How do you strike the right balance?

I’ll answer that in two ways. Among the arts I would also put urban planning. In the sense that we should make tourists experience the urbanism of our places in a relaxed and positive way. I can give you the example of Bologna, which has as its main characteristic precisely its city urbanism, with its arcades, the relationships that the arcades manage to create with the inside and outside of the store. After that there has to be an effort to qualify the offer. In some museums there is a queue outside and often inside you have to scramble, you cannot even stand in front of a painting to meditate because there is a line. And then there are small or medium museums, dedicated to a character or a story, that are beautiful to visit but are semi-deserted. Information is key, creating local guides, itineraries, and addressing the issue of language.

In what sense?

Tourism has exploded in parallel with the web and social. And I’m telling you this from someone who as Travelers by Chance first rode the Internet in the 1990s by offering right on the broadcast site the travelogues of listeners, who were comparing, delving into and even writing 5-folder stories with their itineraries, not just 5-second reels as happens now with TikTok. We need to solve the language problem because tourism suffers from the general cultural level. But I don’t want to be an uncle, I am a backward illiterate. You have to welcome the tourist, invest in it, and the first thing is for the tourist to have fun.

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