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Italy Travels

Southern Italy clings to the past

Elinor Garely, eTN  Jun 28, 2011

Italy - the land of Armani, Prada and Gucci; the birth place of Versace; the land of Parma ham, Calabrian sausages, salami, pasta, wines, and olives. Italy has produced explorers, scientists, artists, architects, saints, musicians, writers, satirists, poets, and historians. Giovanni Agnelli developed the Fiat; Antonio Bernedetto Carpano created vermouth and the aperitif, while Bartolemo Cristofori designed the piano. The movie industry would be “less” were it not for the brilliance of Rudolph Valentino, Marcello Mastrioianni, Gina Lollobrigidia and Sophia Loren.

With such a long and celebrated history travelers to Italy do not recognize that there are significant economic and socio-cultural differences between the southern part of Italy (often viewed as south of Rome) and the northern sector of the country. In fact, over the years, the residents and government officials in Rome, looking north, have suggested that the country split and become two separate entities.

Lots to Learn
Italy entered the 1990s optimistically as it embraced the European Monetary Union, and accepted the euro as the new currency. The northern section of the country welcomed new technology, international competition, and accelerated efforts toward a positive balance of trade. Northern Italian politicians and administrators made serious attempts to control tax evasion, improve education standards and enhance the quality of life for all citizens. Unfortunately the quest for economic and social well-being did not reach the southern sector of the country and today this region is mired in a quality of life reminiscent of the 1960s.

Aid Without Enterprise
Trying to minimize the gap between the north and south the Italian government and the EU provide grants to the southern locales for a variety of projects. Between 2000 and 2006, approximately 27.4 billion euros of European aid was invested in Italy in the regions that most lag behind in terms of development, including Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, Sardinia and Sicily.

Programs in these regions included:

• Support for 20,000 businesses
• Increased businesses connected to the Internet from 24% to 70%
• Increased number of online families from 11% to 32%
• 350 km of modernized railways
• 690 km of new roads were built
• Construction of new airport terminals in Bari, Catania and Cagliari
• Modernization of air traffic control systems
• 9 million people given access to sorted household waste collection
• 63 new waste treatment plants commissioned
• Supportive of regional cultural heritage, 563 projects were funded

Tourism to the Rescue
As a result of the EU efforts during 2000 and 2006, foreign tourism to south Italy increased by 20 percent. However, in 2006, of the approximately 17m visitors to southern Italy less than one third were foreigners (compared with central/northern Italy where half of all visitors were foreigners). In addition, the south earned $4.2 billion from foreign tourists in 2003, compared with $10.8 billion for Greece, $10.6 billion for Turkey and $30.5 billion for Spain.

It is interesting to note that southern Italy is a non-statistical, mainly geographical and historical term which generally refers to the entire southern half of Italy while South Italy is defined for statistical and electoral purposes and includes:

• Abruzzo – L’Aquila, Pescara, Chieti, Sulmona
• Apulia (Puglia) – Taranto, Barletta-Andria-Trani, Brindisi, Foggia, Bari, Lecce
• Basilicata – Potenza, Matera, Metaponto, Maratea, Policoro
• Calabria – Catanzaro, Reggio Calabria, Crotone, Tropea, Cosenza, Squillace, Badolato
• Campania – Naples, Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, Sorrento, Salerno, Caserta
• Molise – Campobasso, Isernia, Larino, Termoli, Agnone

Unfortunately, the Mezzogiorno, as the south is known, continues to score poorly in just about every aspect of Italian life, according to Economist reporter Romano Prodi (July 20, 1996). In 1996 Lombardy’s average GDP was 131% of the EU while Calabria in Italy’s southern region was 60%. Of Italy’s 50 richest towns, not one is southern; however, the south embraces each of the 50 poorest. In 1996, southern unemployment was 21% - nearly three times that of the north and centre. In Campania, seven youths out of ten were unemployed (1996).

Chambers of Commerce include Tourism in their Portfolio
To increase the economic contributions from tourism, the Italian Chambers of Commerce have begun to focus on this industry. While each sector of southern Italy has distinguishing characteristics, the Presidents of these organizations have common concerns and objectives.

Most of the Chamber presidents set their objectives to:

1. Enhance the value and sources of agriturismo (agricultural tourism)

2. Promote cooperation among the diverse sectors of the local economy (i.e., hotel/bed and breakfast owners/managers, restaurateurs, historians, archeologists, government officials, private sector developers)

3. Provide additional incomes for local companies. While global brands attract international visitors, the primary goal is to keep tourism products small in scale and in the hands of local entrepreneurs

4. Develop product marketing strategies that focus on existing resources. Slow to acknowledge the importance of a multi-lingual tourism presence on the Internet and the necessity of multi-lingual personnel/signage in tourism-centered locations, tourism leadership is confident that the attributes of the destinations are “self-evident”

5. Rather than enhance and modernize existing tourism attractions, efforts are directed at increasing overall tourist options by identifying and including all historical sites (some of which are of marginal value) while maintaining the “authenticity” of the tourism experience

6. Expand awareness of year-round good weather conditions for the region

7. Focus on target markets that find current conditions acceptable (i.e. Russia)

Domestic Tourism Increases
While conflicts in Egypt and other popular destinations for Italian tourists has redirected domestic travel to nearby southern Italian options, the international climate (along with a strong euro) has negatively impacted on American tourist arrivals to Italy in general and US arrivals to the southern region in particular.

In addition to the weak US dollar, traditional tourism destinations (i.e., Italy), face an increasingly competitive environment as the number of possible holiday venues expand. This spirited situation has also enlarged the number and types of products and services available to visitors and the southern Italian government and private sector have determined that it is unnecessary to rush after new tourism models preferring to support the “traditional” opportunities currently dominant in southern Italy.

Strengths: Beautiful on the Outside
The geography of the Mezzogiorno/southern Italian region is absolutely stunning and historical sites are bountiful. The climate can get very hot, but not unbearable; the food and wine is delicious and abundant. While local people are often shy around strangers, they can be charming and helpful. However, current socio-cultural attitudes toward growth are not motivators toward changing the tourism product although an increased number of international visitors would provide needed jobs and hard currency. Local business owners are not convinced that it is to their advantage to share the wonders of the region with foreigners.

Since public transportation is not readily available, everyone takes to the road, making traffic in small hillside towns chaotic at best and dangerous all the time. Train schedules are “subject to change without notice,” and stations may be very far from desired destinations. Signage (in any language) is absent, and locating accommodations, historical sites, restaurants, rest areas (except on major highways) can be challenging (and often fruitless). Most accommodations, restaurants, shops, museums, forts and castles do not have handicap access, making it almost impossible for the physically challenged to explore and discover the unique aspects of the region.

Hotels, determining that the 1960s was a high point for tourism have not changed interiors since this period. Guests looking for the opportunity to experience the past will be delighted for they can enjoy bedroom and lobby furniture, fixtures, window treatments, bed and bathroom linen that are reminiscent of the time. A minor nod has been given to 21st century technology in the form of Wi-Fi access in lobbies; however, extra fees are often linked to the service.

Marketing Niche
Although the name belies the strategy, in 1985 southern Italy embraced the concept of agriturismo. Turning farms and rural estates into tourism attractions provides a source of revenue for small farmers who are no longer able to compete in the global market place. Agricultural tourism implies watching milk turn into cheese, olives into oil, and grapes magically transformed into wine. In reality, Italian agriturismo is about experiencing the rural Italian way of life, as lived by local residents and not a stylized, Disney-like experience.

Visitors wishing to go native secure accommodations at farm houses (bed and breakfasts) on the outskirts of cities and towns, accepting modest accommodations in exchange for endless vistas of sand and sea, or green hillsides dotted with meandering sheep and cows, combined with the proud owners prowess in the kitchen where mounds of pasta are made and served along with direct-from-the-soil vegetables and fruits, fish just plucked from the sea, and secondi de carne (i.e., beef, capon, chicken, duck, goose, ham) entrees that has never seen a plastic wrap.

Because of the rural nature of the experience, it is necessary to rent a car and work with the farmer-host to arrange a list of things to see and do within a one or two hour drive or bike ride of the bed and breakfast.

Do Not Rush
There are so many places to explore in southern Italy that there may be an inclination to rush through the region – and this would be a very large mistake. Everyone and everything evolves very slowly and to spend less than three hours at lunch and dinner is an insult to the chef. This is not a location to do solo. It is imperative to take an interesting travel companion along for there is ample time to delve into the most intimate parts of a psyche and to review the incredibly memorable taste experiences along the way.

In part 2 of the Southern Italian experience things to see and do and foods to savor are explored.

Southern Italy clings to the past

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