June 6, 2016
In 2011, torrential rains lashed the Ligurian coast, causing severe mudslide in the Cinque Terre, in particular Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. Five died, six went missing, hundreds of houses collapsed, and Angelo Betta, the mayor of Monterosso, declared his village ceased to exist.
Five years later, not only does Monterosso still exist, all five villages of the Cinque Terre are busier than ever, bustling with tourists from dawn to dusk. Ranging from a population of 150 in Corniglia to Riomaggiore’s 1,700, the Cinque Terre welcomed an astonishing 2.5 million tourists in 2015, much of them coming from La Spezia on cruise ships. Referred as “paradise on earth” by the painter Michelangelo Pistoletto, the Cinque Terre has long been a favorite getaway for Italian artists and musicians before it was discovered by the masses. In 2011, when the area welcomed only 400,000 tourists, half of them were Italians; yet many now shun the five villages, especially during cruise season when this tourist hot spot has more in common with every other jam-packed Mediterranean beach resorts than the rest of Italy.
Who can blame them? If I am a local who prefers a relaxing holiday I too would avoid any place that has received the World Heritage Status like a plague. As I have written before, World Heritage Site has become a politicized tool for nation-states to boost prestige and tourist money. Many places with questionable universal value can be found on the list while countless world class destinations are left out. Each country is eventually to have at least a site inscribed, leading to inscriptions like the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which according to UNESCO is unique because “the site demonstrates the evolution of a British tropical colonial botanic garden that has become a modern world-class scientific institution used for both conservation and education.” How exactly does a colonial botanic garden projects outstanding universal value?
But I digress. From the moment I boarded the train in La Spezia it was a constant struggle to maintain any sort of personal space. Surrounded by people on all sides, the train ride was as torturous as the one during rush hour in Hong Kong. If respite is what you are expecting after arriving your destination, you would be mightily disappointed; the villages’ narrow alleys and tiny harbors were equally packed at all times. No matter if it was Vernazza’s beach, Manorola’s waterfront or Riomaggiore’s harbor, good luck trying to find an unoccupied inch of land along these photogenic coastlines. Even the late night train back to La Spezia was packed like a can of sardines.
But without these pesky tourists, what would have become of these five remote villages? Just outside of Vernazza’s train station was a large bulletin displaying the comprehensive destruction wrought on the village by the mudslide. Walking around Vernazza, however, I couldn’t notice any signs of damage — the disaster from a mere five years ago was seemingly nothing but a footnote of history, an unfortunate event that the village had swiftly overcome. If Vernazza wasn’t on the tourist trail, would there be such a wholesale recovery? Or would the village still be in complete despair, forever buried like many desolated places around the world? Even if Vernazza and Monterosso managed to survive, would they be thriving with business and investment without the massive flow of tourists?
Rural areas throughout the developed world have undergone dramatic depopulation in the past century, and without tourism people who remain in places like the Cinque Terre or Spello or San Gimignano would have a hard time sustaining their livelihoods. To ensure sustainability, a regulation was passed earlier this year which will limit annual visitors to 1.5 million in 2017. In response to the curb there might be a spike in vacation home purchases, potentially driving up the real estate prices in the area. Tourism is a double-edged sword everywhere, and its impact is most acute in tiny communities like the Cinque Terre.