Bryan Allison via Flickr under Gaggle of cruise ship tourists in Florence

Overtourism in Florence: Can we turn the tide?

News Travel & Tourism

The problem of overtourism in Italy is on everybody’s tongues recently, but most loudly, after Venice, is the voice of Florence. From an ex-director of the Uffizi promising to rid the city of burger vans if he becomes mayor in June, to the director of the Accademia bemoaning the exploitation of David, it’s been a non-stop litany. And it’s not without cause. But is there anything to be done that can turn the tide of tourism?

In 2022, the number of overnight stays recorded in Florence, according to Statista, was 10.955million. That is only overnight stays; add to that the number of day-trippers, and you can see why the people of Florence would be running for the gently rolling hills of Tuscany.

The city’s population is under 400,000 people, of which less than 10% live in the historic centre. And for that 10%, the city centre is rapidly losing its appeal.

“Hit and run tourism” as Cecilie Hollberg (director of the Accademia) labelled it in an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, is turning the beautiful streets and piazzas into a hollow version of its former self.

However, as an essential factor in the city’s economy, tourism is here to stay. The pertinent question is, how can it be better managed, allowing locals to live with a community feel still evident?

There are a number of options which have been put forward by voices in Florence and across Italy. Tourist taxes, limiting visitor numbers to monuments and sights, limiting short-term rentals such as AirBnB and the licensing of shops and eateries. Theoretically, many of them sound sensible, but are they doable and do they make a difference?

Are day-tripper taxes helpful?

Venice has had a shrinking local population for decades, and in 2022 the population of the historic centre dropped to below 50,000., a long-standing activist group dedicated to preserving Venice’s heritage, has diligently monitored the city’s population decline. While throngs of visitors congesting the narrow alleyways, bridges, and water buses plays a role in the exodus, it’s not the sole culprit.

According to Secchi, who heads Venessia, the remaining residents feel “suffocated” by an “economic machine” overly reliant on tourism. They grapple with exorbitant living costs, a dearth of affordable housing, and a transformation of essential businesses into souvenir shops.

“Tourism is a double-edged sword because it brings money in, but simultaneously displaces the activities and spaces vital for the residents,” remarked Secchi, characterising Venice as “a cash machine.”

“There are individuals who, though not native to Venice, own property here, rent it out, and then funnel the profits elsewhere.”

This is the sentiment felt by the residents of central Florence, with all their essential shops replaced by those selling souvenir tat and fast food.

To address the problem in Venice, the mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, has driven through a charge for day-trippers on popular days to the lagoon city. Day-trippers will need a QR code for access to Venice’s historic centre, with stewards conducting checks at entry points. Overnight tourists are among those who are exempt.

Alessandra Priante, the head of ENIT, Italy’s national tourism board, thinks these types of charges are useful for intelligence gathering and should be utilised as such. In an interview with DW, she said, “What these taxes should do is generate very important and intelligent data that must be used in order to programme better the [tourism] fluxes.”

“If you use the tax as a means or sort of controlling that, and contributing to managing the flows, then it’s a very intelligent way of doing it.

“On the other hand, if you’re using it just to gain money, it doesn’t really help.”

Perhaps then, a day tripper tax could be Florence’s answer in the short-term, to gather quantifiable and actionable data to address the issue of flow. That still leaves the issue of a liveable historic centre.

Could Schmidt bring the heart back to central Florence?

Eike Schmidt was director of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence from 2015 until the end of 2023. He then moved to the directorship of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. However, earlier this month Schmidt announced he would run for mayor of Florence in the upcoming June elections.

Schmidt has two key agenda items on his ticket: crime and overtourism. Over the years, Schmidt says he has been stopped by Florentines in the street complaining about rising crime figures, overtourism and fast-food stands.

As quoted in the Guardian, Schmidt said mass tourism was feeding a “total deregulation” of the food sector.

“In terms of tourism what we’ve seen is a lowering of the standards,” he said. “We have had dozens and dozens of restaurant licences being converted into burger stands, so people just sell hamburgers and French fries from shop windows.

“There are no tables, toilets, waste bins … people end up sitting down on any steps they find; on monuments or outside the homes of citizens … and throwing greasy papers on the street. It’s a hygienic issue and this total deregulation of the food service sector really needs to stop.”

Imageby eGuide Travel via Flickr under
Tourists at the Loggia in Piazza della Signoria

Schmidt also wants to see the concentration of tourists spread out from the historic centre to other areas of the city and the wider Tuscan region. Fewer of the burger joints and souvenir shops, allowing a centre to reform in which locals feel a sense of community.

At the Uffizi, he modernised and brought a semblance of order to the museum whilst maintaining an eye for the artistic. He also addressed strong issues through startling exhibitions, such as violence against women.

Ironically, he also increased the number of annual visitors to the Galleries. Located in the historic centre.

It will be interesting to see how, should he win the mayoral race, he balances the need for the museums to earn revenue, whilst not overrunning the centre. Tourism really is a sword that cuts both ways.

Spreading the touristic options and slowing down the experience

The concentration of tourist ‘bucket list’ items in Florence is the crux of the matter.

The historic centre of Florence is only 5 square kilometres, and within that are the main sights tourists want to see: Accademia, Uffizi, Piazza della Signoria, Brunelleschi’s Dome, Ponte Vecchio, Santa Croce, and so on.

Skyline of Florence including Brunelleschi's dome

If, as a tourist, you’re coming all the way to Florence from Tokyo, New York, London or Berlin, why wouldn’t you want to see these points of interest? You would, of course you would.

But there is a difference between coming for a photograph and a claim to have ‘done’ Florence, and appreciating what there is on show – the history and artistry of it all.

We could drag out the whipping horse of social media here; so why not. Instagram-able moments and travel selfies are almost de-rigueur when visiting anywhere nowadays, and it’s not just the Millennials brandishing their iPhones and Samsungs in the direction of Botticelli’s Venus or Michelangelo’s David, either.

Watch the queues of tourists of all ages making a beeline for the aforementioned to capture the must have selfie with them in the background. Many take a snap or ten, then move on to the next on their list without further acknowledgement of the art in front of them.

One tour guide related to me the other day how a Japanese tour guide shoved her out of the way, as she was explaining details of the Botticelli’s Venus to her group, so his group could take pictures. They then sallied forth with his flag brandished as a weapon to remove all others from their path. A hit and run tourism experience in more ways than one.

Changing tourists’ perceptions of what a trip to Florence – or any other Italian city – entails is necessary to changing their behaviour.

Related article: What is the real Accademia experience like?

Concerted effort by all tourism parties required

Education is the key here, along with a concerted effort by the tourist regions to encourage Slow Travel and out-of-season experiences.

This will require collaborative efforts from a national to individual site level, with a true understanding of the customer experience and desires.

This is not an easy task in any country, it is particularly difficult in Italy where bureaucracy reigns supreme. However, it should not be insurmountable, and Tuscany has plenty to offer beyond the historic centres of key cities.

Let’s take just one example – agritourism. Olive groves where you can find out about the process of olive oil production, sample different oils, buy the produce, enjoy traditional local fare… The same at a vineyard where you can sample the local wines for which Tuscany is so well-known. That’s not to mention the more hands-on experiences of helping on a farm, cooking weekends, the list stretches on.

picking grapes - AI generated image

And what about combining the town and country?

Italy was the birthplace not only of the Renaissance (Florence) but of the Slow Food movement (Rome) from which other movements such as Slow Travel evolved. In Tuscany – with its beautiful countryside, picturesque towns and villages which also boast an inordinate amount of history and art – the two can be easily married with immersive experiential holidays.

When you create a hybrid holiday, people stay longer. They engage in the community. Fast food vans won’t fit the bill when you’re staying for a couple of nights or more.

And this helps rebuild the core offerings in historic centres as demand shifts from satisfying immediate cravings to a longer-term requirement.

All this involves marketing with a clear message – we want you to come and visit, and we want you to stay and experience our town/city/country beyond the Top 10 things to do list.

Perhaps changing the current ENIT ‘mascot’ from an influencer-type clutching a mobile in front of the Campanile in Venice or Rome’s Colosseum would help?

Home page of the ENIT with website

The final decision lies with the tourists

However, tackling the issues of overtourism lies firmly in the hands of the tourists themselves. Whilst tourism boards, museums and monuments can change their marketing strategy, unless those are engaging enough for consumers to consider them, they simply won’t work.

For an example of what does work, take Schmidt’s Uffizi TikTok collaboration with creators aged under 30 in 2022. It saw likes for the museum rise to over 2.5million and visitor ages drop. At the time Schmidt said, “Those who visit the Uffizi can easily notice that the average age of visitors has dropped; the rooms are full of young people. This is a positive consequence of the museum’s approach to the language and needs of the youngest.”

Screenshot of Uffizi Tik Tok channel showing 2.5million likes

When I say it worked, it brought more and younger people into the Uffizi, which was his aim. How much they contributed to Florence as a city in which to live is another matter.

Schmidt may like to try a contra-approach if he becomes mayor of Florence, and convince the hordes to find somewhere else to holiday for a while instead.

Tourists know their own mind, until convinced otherwise. And for now, it would seem queues, lack of toilets and congested piazzas are fine.

What a shame people forgot the promises they made during lockdown…

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