The Cinque Terre is Closed


trailOkay, it’s not really closed, but I’m beginning to think it should be. At least sometimes. I know I’m going to ruffle some feathers here, but I think the Cinque Terre – while beautiful – should be off-limits to about 75% of the people who tramp through it each year. Just hear me out on this one.

The five villages of the Cinque Terre have been overrun (and, some would say, overdone) for several years, and it’s only getting worse. Most of the visitors to this once peaceful area are fighting heavy foot traffic through the quaint but overcrowded village centers, and are doing lasting damage to the cliffside paths that link them. Whereas it was once no problem at all to stumble off the train in any one of the towns and find plenty of rooms for rent at a moment’s notice, the crowds are making that more challenging – not to mention that with such demand the prices for the rooms which are available are going up. Anyone can appreciate the stunning views the Cinque Terre offers, but when you can’t see them for the crowds they kind of lose something.

I’ve written before about overhearing a conversation in a Vernazza bar between a Rick Steves tour guide and the bar owner, about how Rick sometimes expresses regret that his rhapsodizing about the Cinque Terre has helped contribute to its overcrowding. I wouldn’t blame him entirely, as he’s certainly not the only one who comes back from the Cinque Terre gushing about the place – but the Rick Steves effect is definitely noticeable. One former Vernazza resident who asked not to be named says that:

At the very least, there needs to be a maximum daily visitors policy. Vernazza, for one, just can’t shoulder the load anymore. Even late April is becoming ridiculous. It’s not just the over-abundance of Americans anymore. It’s everybody. I’ve watched thousands of Germans, walking sticks in hand, ravage the newly-replaced paths in under a day.

Each winter, the walls have to be completely reconstructed, the paths renewed, and since they don’t traditionally use mortar (and are now prohibited from doing so by park policies), this is a painstaking task. An 8 ft by 8 ft piece of wall takes around two to three days to rebuild. And there are only a few guys who actually still know how to do it well.

Everyone’s writing about Italy (tis the season), and the Cinque Terre in particular. In a short span of time, I found an article in the New York Times about a long weekend in the Cinque Terre, several pieces referring to the NY Times piece and one article that says it’s about the “secret side” of the Cinque Terre. And if you’ve seen pictures of the place or talked to anyone who’s ever been there, it’s not surprising why people keep going there. All I’m saying is that if we thought more about the future and less about ourselves in the here and now, we might be approaching this differently.

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If people continue to flood the tiny Cinque Terre towns, they might get to point to their photos right now – but what will be left for future generations, not to mention the residents themselves? Of course, it’s easy for me to say this – I’ve been there. Twice, in fact. And I really enjoyed my stays, both times. The second time, however, the paths between the towns were difficult to navigate because of the sheer number of people on them, and I was even nearly knocked down a long flight of stone steps by someone with a large backpack going the opposite way. Accidents can and will happen even with only a few people on a trail, but the likelihood of accidents is far greater the more people you try to cram onto a trail that’s only a couple feet wide and doesn’t have a barrier rail between you and the ocean far below.

Still, even though I’ve been there and so I’ve already “gotten mine,” so to speak, I think that for the sake of the Cinque Terre it makes sense to think about something akin to the permits which are required to raft the Grand Canyon. If you’re not familiar with the system, you get on a waiting list for a permit, and the wait can often be 10 years. If you and your spouse are both on the list and your spouse’s name comes up first, you can’t go on that trip or you’ll forfeit your own permit. I’m not sure something that dramatic would be required (or even feasible) for the Cinque Terre, but here’s what I think would work.

In order to visit the Cinque Terre, you’d need to apply for a permit for specified dates. You’d either be told that your permit was approved – because there were still rooms available, or the maximum visitor number hadn’t been met, or whatever the criteria was – or you’d be told that period was already full. You could also be told what dates weren’t already full. Better yet, the system would be online so you could see on a calendar what dates were already booked. There could be different permit types for people who were not planning to stay overnight in any of the towns but only wanted to do the hike, or spend a day at the beach, and move on. But the overall idea would be that it wouldn’t be open season on the Cinque Terre.

Now, who won’t like this idea? I can think of a few groups that would resist it.

  • Any locals who haven’t yet gotten rich from the tourist swarms. They’ve seen their neighbors upgrade from an old Fiat to a new Mercedes and they want their piece of the pie, too. It’s a fair argument – it is where they live, after all – but again, if everyone focuses on the “now” and ignores what could happen in the future, there could eventually be no tourists visiting at all.
  • Officials of the relatively-new Cinque Terre park. The creation of the park helped the cause a bit, as a fee is now charged to walk between the villages and hours are regulated. If there was any slowing in the number of tourists paying those park fees, that would obviously put a dent in the flow of money into the park’s coffers. While it’s great that they finally got their act together to charge people for path tickets, I reiterate that unless the entire area is maintained with more of an eye to the future, the number of visitors could eventually trickle to nothing anyway.
  • Travelers who don’t plan ahead. I happen to be a planner, but I admire those who know only when they fly in and when they fly out again and just wing it in between those dates. People who travel like that would have a hard time if they decided on the spur of the moment that they wanted to spend a few days in the Cinque Terre, if they hadn’t booked ahead and the place was full. I’m sympathetic to this argument, but I also know that in order to see da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan you have to book a spot, sometimes months in advance, and no one seems to be up in arms about that.

So, is a permit program even possible in the Cinque Terre? I doubt it. There are too many people still gushing about the place, and too many people who would say it’s not fair. And to some extent, I agree – it’s not necessarily fair. But then again, is it fair to destroy a national treasure (even if it’s done out of love, the end result is the same) so that future generations will only be able to hear stories of how lovely the Cinque Terre used to be?


10 thoughts on “The Cinque Terre is Closed

  • Jessica Post author

    Thanks for the note, James, and for your post – I actually think you bring up a really good point, and it’d be great if just raising prices would work. What I think would happen, however, is that the higher prices would turn the 5T into something like Positano or Monaco, where only the uber-rich can afford to really spend any time there. And wouldn’t that cause the same reaction you noted – “You $*^*& liberal elite scum are always out to limit access to cool stuff to have it all for yourselves!” ?

    You are correct, however, in that no matter how many times someone says, “You want really undiscovered Italy? Try ____” – it won’t be a hit until it’s being printed in every single Italy guide book. And then it is, of course, no longer undiscovered Italy. Obviously, to find truly off-the-beaten path destinations anywhere, you’ve got to use the guide book as a reference only in so far as if a place is NOT listed, then it’s worth visiting. 🙂

  • James Martin

    I doubt that the poor can afford the Cinque Terre in the first place. The point I was trying to make is that people pay a whole lotta money to get to Italy–so one assumes they can afford to pay for the degradation they produce. It’s really just paying for “what ya done.” Or, in other words, your fair share of the damage.

    james

  • Jessica Post author

    Well, there’s a difference between “the poor” and budget travelers – many of whom can (and do) visit the 5T. They’d be the first ones shut out of the area if prices skyrocketed.

    But in general, yes – I do agree with you that people should be made to pay for damage they inflict on something. It’s that way in a store (you break it, you buy it), so why not in nature?

  • anniebanannie

    As someone who is going to 5T in a few weeks, I think it is easy to say something should be limited when you’ve already been. 😉

    I don’t think this phenomenon is unique to 5T. As global travel increases, for better or worse, this will happen in many places. Tourism is a vicious cycle…this is where the local influence would have to come in. They would have to influence others not to build new hotels, not to let out their rooms, etc. In large part, it is up to them to help preserve their area.

    Tourists have to play their part, educate themselves, etc., but this type of movement needs to be more grass roots.

  • Jessica Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Annie – and I agree. This isn’t something tourists or even tour group leaders can (or should) impose on the locals. Any measure to help preserve the area would have to come from residents; and in a way, they’ve already taken the first step. By creating a national park of the hike between the villages, requiring people to pay for the privilege to use the paths and limiting the hours the paths are open, they’ve already acknowledged that something needed to be done. It’ll be interesting in the next decade or so to see if they do anything else (raise the ticket prices, further restrict hiking groups, etc.).

    As for tourists educating themselves, I think that’s the ideal, but far from the norm. Travelers like you are the exception. 😉 And BTW, you’ll have a grand time in the 5T – if you need or want any tips, lemme know!

  • Jane

    I partially agree with your comments, but I don’t think that 2 trips to Vernazza makes you an expert on this topic. As someone who has been going to Vernazza for 5 years (twice a year) and stay in the homes of the local people. My daughter works at one of the local bars each summer when we are there. Possibly the same one you referred to. Two of my dearests and closests friends are local people, who make their living off the tourist. Are they getting “rich”? By no means because the cost of living for the locals is steep! They depend on the tourist for their income. I agree 100% that there is too much day traffic that hikes through the village. To me the real concern is the loud college age group (normally females) that parties late and has no respect that this village is someones home: a home where someone is suffering from cancer, or a family is trying to put children down for the night (they do have school the next day), and the working man/woman has to get up early to catch a train to work. Me personally, I would like to see no tourist, but this is unrealistic. Here I agree with your thought on 75% should not be allowed. Vernazza is a special place – where the land, water and sky comes together. Those of us that are fortunate enough to coexist with the locals are the ones who step off the train and word spreads quickly through the village that their American friend is back once again. Their question is always the same after lots of hugs and kisses – How long do you stay?

  • Jessica Post author

    Thanks for your comments, Jane – and I don’t think I’m an expert, either! 🙂 I was partially basing my thoughts here on a discussion I had with an expat, someone who made a home in Vernazza for a decade (living there year-round), so it wasn’t just based on my visits to the Cinque Terre.

    And I don’t think I’d like to see no tourists in the 5T, because it’s a beautiful place that deserves to be seen. I think there just need to be some limits, that’s all. Not that I think that’ll happen, of course, but I had to throw my two cents out there.

  • Pall Forloney

    As an American living in Riomaggiore for about 12 years, I would say your a little bit slow on acting out what you believe in how to run Cinque Terre. The main problem is tour groups which flood the Via dell Amore starting at 10 am every day. Spending nothing in Riomaggiore or Manarola, but in Vernazza where the group leaders get their kick backs. Just take a look at the stores in Vernazza, every hole is selling something to the Americans who Rick Steves sends to them. Let us not forget the young students who come for the day or week end, for them it is spring break all over again. Taking to the trails in flip flops and filling up beer as they go. I do run a trekking business here and believe me I have some of the best of people, also go to places in small numbers and off the path that everyone knows. I want to show the best of the Cinque Terre and want them to see it as well. To force some one who wants to see it to take a number and wait is stupid and the 5 Terre is not the Grand Canyon either. Not every one is getting rich in 5 Terre as you put it, the season is short here and please stopping writing about 5 terre. You did your 2 visits and let other people discover for themselves this beautiful place. Now tomorrow we are all going to Vernazza and help dig them out of the mud. We all stand together here and it was a tough year for all of us here.

  • Rick Steves

    I am very proud of my accomplishment. I have effectively ruined the world as we know. When I was a young boy, I had a dream. It was to dig out every sector of this planet and expose it for what it was worth. I wanted to take the most enchanted, most beautiful places this Earth has and turn them into crowded and over grown messes. I must say, I’ve accomplished my task.
    I sit and ponder sometimes…what would the world be like if I didn’t destroy it. Cinque Terre would be a magical, peaceful place. Tuscany would uncrowded and delightful. The Swiss alp towns would be scenic and nostalgic. Yes, I have turned all of this places into piss holes filled with teeming tourists. I am largely responsible for overcrowding the wonders of Europe. I destroyed the magic of Europe.
    Yes, it’s great to be me. I’ve made millions of dollars living out my dream. Sadly, none of you will thuough. Good luck making your way through the hot stinky crowds I created.

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