Here's how culture makes things complicated for tourism (and what to work on to improve it)

The relationship between culture and tourism? It is not always idyllic, indeed sometimes culture makes things complicated for tourism. Here are some elements of difficulty, which should be worked on to improve the cultural tourism offer.

Culture and tourism live in osmosis. It is clear that a huge slice of the Italian tourism market draws its lifeblood from the country’s cultural heritage, but in turn it brings wealth to individual sites, their territory and cities of art.

While in recent years we have become increasingly aware of the negative effects thatovertourism has on some of our country’s fragile historic centers, it seems to me that little attention is still being paid to the issue of how tourism is affected by cultural heritage, either positively or negatively depending on the more or less virtuous management of the individual site.

The first critical issue lies in the difficult or partial access of so many cultural sites. Staff shortages limit opening hours and usability. If even some of the most important museums and archaeological parks are forced to keep certain sections closed or limit opening hours, thousands of “minor” sites remain closed altogether and at best are accessible on demand or on a rigid schedule, such as once a month.

Granted that the shortage of staff is an objective problem, which can be solved only by political and administrative measures, and that it is in any case unthinkable to keep everything open, given the enormity and fragility of our heritage, I think it would be possible to better organize, upon request and for a fee, the opening of various sites, especially archaeological ones, for cultural tourism, as well as for residents. Over the years we have made proposals and projects, but to no avail. For the future, we hope for a greater desire for “openness,” in all senses, because monuments with on-demand access can enrich the offer intended for an interested public, while at the same time ensuring optimal control of the property without damage.

One issue that heavily influences cultural tourism, because it interferes with tickets, reservations, and shifts, is the relationship between management/concessionaire/manager/tour operators. It ranges from situations of great fairness to abuse of dominant position. The presence of private parties for additional services is not in itself a negative element: the public-private relationship can yield excellent results if applied with balance. Over the years, we have experienced that the key is in the willingness of individual directorates to ensure a level playing field for all, to control what happens in their museum, and to intervene as soon as necessary. Unfortunately, to date, the places and situations where agencies and tour guides are discriminated against in favor of concessionaires or cooperatives or even volunteer associations are several.

Rome, visitors to the Farnesina
Rome, visitors to the Farnesina

Another element that complicates visits is the differentiation of rules (maximum number of people per group, reservation methods, opening days, etc.) among each Italian cultural site. Creating a program in which you want to include various monuments in a region can be so complicated and frustrating that in the end agencies prefer to propose the usual few things they are certain of and that are proven.

Difficulties grow for groups, especially in museums (fortunately not in the country’s most important archaeological sites): one begins to struggle with the maximum number of people per group in each museum (15 in one, 25 in another, 30 in yet another) but especially with the need for group reservations (sometimes mandatory from 5 people and up!) and limited shifts. And beware: without the group reservation, the guide cannot conduct the tour, even if there are tickets available or the rooms are empty. The absurdity is that all this happens even in little-known and popular museums, where one would expect any group to be welcome, helping to take off more tickets; instead, they prefer to have fewer visitors, rather than accommodate groups with guides. Yet, all of the vandalism established in monuments is the work of individual tourists without guides, and in all episodes the guides present at the time rushed to stop the perpetrators.

Tourism, especially congress tourism but not only, is then severely penalized by the very long times - up to 2-3 months - for granting out-of-hours openings for events (congresses, private tours, conferences, etc.) in museums and palaces. In many cases, stakeholders end up turning to private sites where everything is solved in a few days. The conference segment is one of the richest and highest level segments, which everyone chases, and which brings not only revenue but visibility and promotion for the sites involved.

Another element to work on is that of reception and hospitality, in all aspects, from benches for sitting in museum halls to water dispensers and toilets inside archaeological parks, to the courtesy of the custodial and security staff, which is impeccable in many cases but borders on rudeness in others. We need to combine the richness of the cultural heritage with quality services that make the stay in cultural sites an enjoyable and stimulating experience, one to be repeated, not a sacrifice.

Finally, if we really want to improve the offer of cultural tourism, the problem of transportation cannot be passed over in silence. With the exception of cities touched by airplanes and high-speed trains, important centers and sites scattered across the territory are easily and quickly reached only by car or tourist bus. For most foreign tourists, the regular bus is not an option, because they fear taking the wrong bus, not getting off at the right place, or not being able to return if they miss a ride. A considerable part of Italy is thus cut off. It is objectively complicated to visit even UNESCO sites such as Hadrian’s Villa and the Cerveteri necropolis despite their proximity to Rome, not to mention the fact that to reach Pompeii, the most important archaeological park in Italy along with the Colosseum, without a private car, one has to use the Circumvesuviana, whose inefficiencies are such that it has given rise to a popular Facebook page (“Circumvesuviana. A guide to suppressions and unsolved mysteries”) and a book. Any major project to diversify flows, promote the area and develop the local economy will fail if transportation is not improved. We have been complaining so much for years that tourism is concentrated on only a few sites, but it is not at all easy to get tourists access to so many lesser-known places.

This contribution was originally published in No. 17 of our print magazine Windows on Art Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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